In honor of National Physical Therapy Month, Global Health Aging is presenting a weekly four-part article series on aquatic therapy. This is Part 2 in this series. Part 1 focused on the aquatic therapy marketplace. Click here to read Part 3.
Over the last thirty years, the field of aquatic therapy has steadily grown in US allied healthcare. Insurance companies that reimburse for aquatic therapy ONLY reimburse for a licensed physical therapist or maybe a physical therapy assistant. Depending on the state, there are some workarounds like a certified instructor being employed by a physical therapy practice or hospital. All too often, though, the employers err on the side of legal caution, fearful of liabilities which may be inherent in land-based physical therapy but seem almost non-existent in aquatic therapy.
Out of respect for those licensed in physical therapy, Aquatic Therapy Rehab Institute (ATRI) certified instructors, who do not have a degree and license in physical therapy, are discouraged from calling themselves “aquatic therapists”. Physical therapists, however, are not required to have aquatic certification to bill for aquatic therapy. So, if you are in need of aquatic therapy, perhaps as pre-operative conditioning or after your insurance allowable coverage for physical therapy has been exhausted, what can you look for in an aquatic professional?
Many reputable organizations either post or offer access to staff biographies. Like they do in the physician offices, those practicing aquatic therapy should specifically display their credentials. A certificate, license or degree from a bona fide organization can be a first tier requirement. Certifications usually require professionals to obtain continuing education hours to maintain credentials. This must be done every two years or less, and professionals should display the one that is relatively current.
Certifications from organizations like ATRI, Aquatic Exercise Association (AEA) and Aquatic Therapy University (ATU) may give an indication that your practitioner has met certain stringent requirements to authenticate their expertise. ATU has more recently been established specifically to target degreed professionals in both physical and occupational therapy. In some instances, even speech pathologists are obtaining certifications as evidence is now emerging on warm water activities. The soothing effects of such activities can advance progress in remediating stroke, traumatic brain injury (TBI) deficits or other speech pathologies, including some oral cancers.
Across all three certifying organizations, a broad and sometimes intensive proficiency needs to be demonstrated. This includes sufficiently answering test questions governing anatomy, physiology, kinetics and some physics as it pertains to water properties, as well as skill demonstration, especially when performing physical manipulations in the water.
Even when a licensed physical therapist is practicing aquatic therapy, it is important to know what additional training and credentials the aquatic professional may have by a certifying organization. All the knowledge of anatomy, physiology and kinesiology may not be as helpful if the practitioner has not spent a significant amount of time in water experiencing how the body works differently on land and in waist or shoulder deep water. It is more important that the aquatic practitioner have a deep understanding of how the properties of the water can be used to best achieve the functional goals or milestones of the participant.
Thus, beyond finding credentials, seeing is believing. Take time to observe your aquatic practitioner and ask permission to observe – perhaps make a video with your cell phone or take notes. Compare one practitioner to another or better yet several others! Look to find many of the following qualities:
- Clearly defined milestones and functional goals/expectations of outcome;
- Workload progression that supports goals: meaning variances in
- time to accomplish an exercise;
- range of motion;
- effort or exertion;
- depth of water used;
- length of extremity in activating a particular joint;
- exercises performed where extremities are operating in different depths;
- exercises performed where extremities are operating in different planes;
- use of equipment such as drag and buoyancy equipment;
- breath cueing and control (when to inhale and exhale; diaphragmatic breath);
- Attentive observation of and note-taking about the patient (some PTs bring their laptops poolside and pay more attention to their computer than their client);
- Apparent knowledge of how to make modifications of exercises to insure progress without pain or injury;
- Cheerful disposition and encouragement based upon progress toward goals.
With all or most of these objectives meeting your approval, ask to speak with the professional and ask for referrals. In some cases, aquatic practitioners are award winners in their fields. They may have published research articles or been written up in a local paper or support group newsletter. Be sure to contact references and add their comments to your observation notes. It is best to have a conversation with a prospective aquatic specialist to make sure you communicate easily and understand their instructions. Sometimes, communication disconnects can derail the most qualified professional’s efforts to guide you toward your functional goals.
This kind of upfront investment in your self care may prove the best return for not just your dollar, but more importantly your well-being. After all, your health is your greatest wealth!
Felecia Fischell is an Aquatic Specialist with twenty-three years experience in aquatics. She leads aquatic classes and consults as an aquatic personal trainer and a swim instructor at the Franklin County Family YMCA in Virginia. Formerly the Founder of FunLife Aquatics Consulting in Maryland, Felecia presents at health fairs and has given aquatic presentations to high schools, Howard County Board of Education, Howard County General Hospital and Howard County Community College.