With the current digital transformation of the healthcare system, also physiotherapy is increasingly affected by new developments [3, 4, 30]. Various elements like electronic documentation, telehealth and mHealth can make physiotherapists’ daily work easier and increase their efficiency [5, 6, 14]. Thus, the primary aim of the present study was to investigate the attitude towards different aspects of digitalization amongst physiotherapists. Furthermore, a sub-analysis of participants’ age, workplace, gender, and mode of survey participation aimed to assess factors contributing to the surveyed physiotherapists’ attitudes.
Half of all participants stated that digitalization was interesting and that they would use elements of it, if it suited their work. In addition, most of the participants considered the potential of digitalization very high. This result is consistent with findings of a previous study, which showed that the work of physiotherapists can be made easier and more efficient by implementing digital tools . Younger participants agreed with this statement significantly more often than their elderly counterparts. Furthermore, this group also stated significantly more often that communication with colleagues would be more feasible compared to the older group of participants. To our knowledge, this facet of digitalization has not yet been investigated in other studies, but a stronger affinity to digitalization among the younger generation of physiotherapists .
Websites and e-mails were the most frequently utilized digital services in the surveyed participants. Only a few physiotherapists, especially the participants over 40 and those working in the outpatient sector, had used online video consultations. This is unexpected since several studies have shown that telehealth can be equivalent to conventional treatments, and other health disciplines are already using this digital tool [12, 13, 24, 25]. This finding suggests that several digital tools have not yet been implemented widely amongst physiotherapists  and might go along with the findings presented in this study, that only one third of those surveyed stated, that they were satisfied with their data literacy. To our knowledge, there is no comparative data in the literature on digital skills for physiotherapists and possible reasons for this finding remain unclear. However, a survey of nurse trainees on eHealth skills showed that 45% of respondents were satisfied with their internet skills . E-Health can be referred to as the use of information and communications technologies in support of health and health-related fields . Nevertheless, another study on eHealth competence among college students revealed a relatively high percentage of incorrect self-assessment for these abilities , so that the presented results should be examined further in future studies.
Almost one fifth of physiotherapists in the present study had not yet used digital applications in their everyday work. The literature also showed that mHealth is not yet considered an integral part amongst health care professionals and especially not physiotherapists [36, 37], although several studies have proved advantages of digital tools regarding patients’ satisfaction [14, 38]. Insufficient knowledge and low experience were identified as potential causes of low digital usage in health professions in a previous study . Other authors reported that available mHealth tools did not meet physiotherapists’ usage expectations .
Most of the participants in the present study stated, that they used digital tools to organize their own work or practice. This can be seen as promising for the future, since the use of mHealth in surgical patients, in the peri- and postoperative phases, showed to have a positive effect and treatment plan adherence .
Amongst several positive aspects of digitalization, this study also assessed concerns of the surveyed participants. Previous studies have identified lacking security and privacy of data as potential disadvantages [40, 41], which were also the main concern in the present study. Younger participants as well as participants in the online survey stated these concerns more frequently than their counterparts. Furthermore, especially younger physiotherapists had concerns about the integration of new technologies into existing systems, which is consistent with findings of a previous study .
Like in all other areas, digitalization within physiotherapy also includes the topics “Big Data” and “artificial intelligence”, which are becoming increasingly important . Large-scale patient-related data analysis can successfully help developing new treatment strategies [32, 43]. Furthermore, with the help of personal data, clinical records, exercise evaluations and videos, physiotherapists may receive support for the assessment and evaluation of treatment results . Most of the physiotherapists in the present cohort also considered these topics important for their future work. However, nearly 20% of respondents said that Big Data and AI were not increasingly relevant to them. Female physiotherapists and physiotherapists working in the outpatient sector considered this topic to be less relevant. To the author’s believe, possible reasons for this phenomenon are lack of data, lack of experience in using digital tools , or reluctance to include digital tools into one’s work.
In our study, most physiotherapists stated that they were unaware of key aspects of the current legal situation regarding digitalization. In Germany, the first newer legislative initiatives on digitalization of the healthcare system by the government have taken place since 2015 and have been significantly expanded since then . Thus, the attitude and engagement of physiotherapists to digitalization might have changed till today, especially also in the context of the current Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, it also must be taken into consideration that political goals and strategies for implementing digitalization may vary between countries and hence also physiotherapists’ attitudes in a multinational comparison. Amongst the few who stated to have better knowledge of this, physiotherapists over 40 years, and online respondents were predominant. For the group of elderly participants, this could be due to greater work experience. There are no existing comparative studies for physiotherapists in this regard. However, the legal situation regarding digitalization within the healthcare system may vary between national and international levels [44, 45]. This could make it more difficult for an individual user to build up knowledge about the key aspects of the current legal situation. Physiotherapeutic associations and societies can play a front role for providing information and orientation to address this issue.
The study is limited by the number of participants compared to the number of active physiotherapists in Germany, making it not representative. Therefore, − especially in the current situation with the Sars-CoV-19 pandemic – the presented data should be further validated in multi-center studies with a larger sample size and also in direct relation to measurable improvements of digital tools in medicine. In this context, another limitation is the self-reporting character and thus subjective source of the current data, making a more objective data generation necessary. Since the presented results must be considered incongruent, this study cannot give deduction on a relevant bias of online versus paper-based surveys on digital topics. Another serious limitation of this study was that a definite survey response rate could not be stated, since the exact number of recipients was distorted due to unclear numbers of not-received emails and absences in the courses at the day of evaluation.
A further limitation is the fact that the survey participation in a paper-based or online mode was defined by the authors, which may have influenced the outcome. Additionally, questions on the potential advantages as well as potential problems of digitalization, had predefined answer options. This means that the entire range of answers was most likely not fully covered, which should be addressed in further surveys by adding a free-text comment option. Furthermore, we conducted a post-hoc-power analysis for the working-place subgroup, which revealed inhomogeneous results ranging from 9.8 to 87.1%.