Unique help line aims to connect Albertans who need physical therapy during pandemic

A new advice line set up to help Albertans with physical disabilities and injuries connect with rehabilitation advice during the pandemic is believed to be the first of its kind in Canada.

As restrictions were put in place to control the spread of COVID-19, many people became increasingly isolated and clinic closures meant they lost access to crucial therapies.

The toll-free phone line (1-833-379-0563), set up by Alberta Health Services (AHS), is staffed by health-care providers such as physiotherapists and occupational therapists and operates from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week.

"We know that if we can't provide those services it can have a dramatic and negative impact on the health of individuals," said AHS vice president Sean Chilton.

"This is one of many solutions we believe can help people as we work through the difficulties that the COVID-19 pandemic has created."

The advice line is set up to support a range of Albertans, over the age of 18, including:

  • Those with existing health conditions that affect muscles, bones, and joints – including those awaiting or recovering from surgery. 
  • Those who have existing neurological conditions including Parkinson's, spinal cord injury, MS, brain injury, and stroke.
  • Those who are recovering from COVID-19.

"The advice line is intended to give callers information about activities, exercise that might help with their physical concerns, strategies to manage day-to-day activities. rehabilitation services that might be open for in-person or virtual visits, and connect them with community-based organizations as well as with their primary care physicians," said Chilton.

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While physiotherapy clinics were given the green light to re-open with restrictions earlier this month, Chilton said there is still a need to offer isolated Albertans additional supports.

For COVID-19 patients, follow-up therapy can be a key part of recovery, according to Mark Hall, an associate professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of Alberta.

"Many of them will develop lung injuries and issues with breathing. And certainly those that have been in hospital for a long period of time and especially the ICUs, they get very de-conditioned so they lose muscle mass and strength and also have issues with endurance following discharge from the ICU or from the hospital back to home," he said.

Post-COVID-19 patients often need therapy

According to Hall, therapy and specialized exercise programs are often needed so patents can resume regular activities such as walking around the house or getting to the mailbox.

"Those that do need rehabilitation haven't been able to get out to physiotherapy clinics or to outpatient facilities in hospitals which have only recently opened up. And some of them may be too weak or too de-conditioned to get to those services."

Hall said the toll-free advice line could benefit COVID-19 patients and many others with disabilities, particularly those who may not have access to laptops and smartphones for virtual appointments.

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"The advice line would connect them with physiotherapists who can provide them with guidance on home exercise programs," he said.

COVID-19 has pushed health-care providers to find new ways to connect with patients, something Hall said could have long-term benefits.

"I think having these technologies — the advice line and video conferencing technologies — will enable us to provide services to communities that don't really have good physiotherapy access."

The rehabilitation phone line will be evaluated when the pandemic is over. Depending on its success, AHS said it could be considered as a permanent service.