For obvious reasons, the use of telemedicine has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are wondering what a “virtual” orthopaedic physical exam looks like, Tanaka et al. explain the process in words and images in a recent fast-tracked JBJS article.
At the time they schedule their virtual visit, patients are asked to confirm their audiovisual capabilities, and they receive specific instructions about camera positioning, body positioning, setting, and attire to improve the efficiency of the visit.
Tanaka et al. give step-by-step instructions for virtually evaluating the knee, hip, shoulder, and elbow. They describe how they measure range of motion using a web-based goniometer (see Figure), and they explain how to conduct virtual strength tests for each joint. To enable post-exam follow-up discussions with patients, the authors recommend using “the screen-sharing function that is presumably available on all interactive telehealth platforms.”
The authors acknowledge the limitations inherent in a virtual orthopaedic exam, such as the inability to directly palpate the joint or perform provocative tests. They also admit that the patient population that would potentially benefit the most from televisits—older patients with limited mobility and who are at higher risk for infection during the pandemic—are also those who may have the most difficulty implementing the technology.
The rapid rise of telemedicine in orthopaedics has occurred due to unexpected necessity, but many expect that its widespread use will continue post-pandemic. Tanaka et al. cite future directions for the technology, including the development of validated, modified examination techniques and advancements that will improve interactivity during the physical examination. For now, though, these experience-based guidelines should help orthopaedists optimize the quality and efficiency of their upcoming virtual visits for common musculoskeletal conditions.