Enormous technological advances in the last century have fundamentally changed the healthcare industry. New pharmaceutical drugs, stable and accessible hospital care, and advanced training for health professionals have combined to extend life expectancy worldwide. Physical therapy is no exception. Advances in imaging techniques and surgical procedures have vastly decreased the duration of physical rehabilitation for a wide variety of conditions. Minimally-invasive surgery, which feeds computer-guided cameras through thin plastic tubes to reduce the need for open surgery, is just one such example.
Where are we headed, though, and how might physical therapy change? Nanotechnology may hold the answers. Nanotechnology refers to the manipulation of matter at extremely small scales (many times thinner than a human hair) to create new compounds is the basis for new technologies. What this means for physical therapy is that human regenerative capacity may be increased exponentially in the near future, through a variety of stem cell research projects, some of which utilizing nanotechnology to facilitate the genesis of the process. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that act (along with progenitor cells) as repair mechanisms for the body, creating specialized cells that help regenerate damaged tissue. Nanotechnological advances in stem cell-related technology have the potential to drastically affect an individual’s chances for recovery from injury or illness.
Repayment options and accessibility may change significantly as well. The Affordable Care Act of 2010, perhaps most well-known for mandating that employers with 50 or more full-time employees provide health insurance coverage for their full-time staff, also establishes fundamental restructuring of health insurance repayment. The Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) creates an online marketplace for small business owners to compare health insurance coverage plans for their employees. These portions of the Affordable Care Act have extended health insurance coverage to tens of millions of American citizens who previously did not have access to healthcare services, and many of the public plans may include information (or even compensation) for physical therapy.
Increased access to healthcare services means that more citizens will be able to take advantage of technology to decrease the length of their physical rehabilitation. As access to healthcare services grows, medical professionals trained in administering physical therapy will be in greater demand. Greater access also grants the possibility of furthering public education in health-related issues, including proper rest, hydration, and exercise during the course of physical rehabilitation. Even if nanotechnology significantly improves human regenerative capacity, an optimal recovery will still depend on intelligent decisions and an awareness of the body on the part of the individual.
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