Fall injuries a huge risk for older Americans. This simple step could keep them safe | Opinion

Idaho’s physical therapy community is rallying behind new legislation introduced in Congress that would help expand access to critical physical and occupational therapy (PT/OT) services for seniors enrolled in Medicare. The bipartisan Stopping Addiction and Falls for the Elderly (SAFE) Act (H.R. 7618) would expand Medicare coverage to include a falls risk assessment provided by a physical or occupational therapist — falls expert — as part of the program’s annual wellness visits and initial preventive physical exams.

This small but significant change would help address the growing epidemic of senior falls in the United States that is threatening the health and well-being of older Americans while driving up healthcare costs and prescription drug dependence.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 30 million elderly Americans — or roughly 25% of all seniors — experience a fall every year. These falls result in roughly 3 million emergency room visits, 300,000 hip fractures and an additional $50 billion in associated healthcare costs annually.

As a physical therapist and clinic owner with practices across Idaho, I personally know the immense value physical and occupational therapy services can provide for our nation’s seniors. Physical therapy helps elderly patients stay steady on their feet and ultimately helps them avoid falls, more effectively manage their pain, and live more active, independent lives. By integrating physical therapist-provided falls risk assessments into Medicare’s annual wellness visits and physical exams, we can better help Idahoans avoid injury-causing and life-threatening falls.

It’s that simple — the SAFE Act would help safeguard the physical health of my older patients by reducing fall-related injuries.

Moreover, reducing falls among older Americans would provide immense cost-saving benefits for our entire healthcare system. According to CDC data, the average hospital cost for a fall-related injury is roughly $30,000, and by 2030, the projected cost of treating senior falls in America’s hospitals is expected to reach over $100 billion annually. Proactively providing seniors in Medicare with physical and occupational therapy services can greatly reduce their chances of falling.

The SAFE Act not only helps protect older Americans; it would also help reduce overall healthcare spending.

According to a report released last year, physical therapy can lead to a significant reduction in hospitalizations, emergency room visits, and opioid use among Medicare beneficiaries. Seniors who utilize physical therapy services, according to the report, were 50% less likely to visit the emergency room or be hospitalized in the six months after a fall and 39% less likely to use opioids. Ultimately, the study found that expanding the use of PT/OT services among older Americans could help reduce Medicare spending by $10 billion annually.

Physical therapy has a transformative impact on the quality of life and well-being of my patients; helping them improve their balance, strength, and independence. At the same time, increasing access to physical therapy services — like falls risk assessments —through the Medicare program can help prevent costly and often avoidable injuries. Right here at home, 27% of older Idahoans, or more than 112,000 seniors, are at risk for a serious fall — many of which we can prevent.

Physical therapists in Idaho, and across the country, are already trained to perform falls risk assessments, during which we evaluate a patient’s living space and help identify any potential fall hazards. According to research, older Americans who received home assessment services from a trained professional were able to lower their risk of a fall by 31%. It is time these services are made available to all Medicare beneficiaries as part of their annual wellness visits.

I urge Congress to pass the SAFE Act without delay. This commonsense legislative solution will help protect seniors from fall-related injuries and deaths while reducing healthcare spending. I call on Idaho’s congressional delegation to support falls prevention for our state’s growing population of older Americans.

Bryan Wright PT, DPT, OCS is the founder and CEO of Wright Physical Therapy.