When Tracie Hunnicutt, therapy manager at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Arlington, heads into work for the day, she completes a temperature check and screening before she enters the hospital.

After that, it’s business as usual for Hunnicutt as she and her colleagues work to help patients regain their independence after a life changing illness or injury—as close as it can be since the COVID-19 pandemic brought change to much of the healthcare system.

Encompass Health Arlington helped create the Company’s REAL Therapy program, which focuses on activities patients will need to perform when they return to the community, such as getting in and out of cars and going to the grocery store. This functional approach to therapy is still paramount to patient care.

“Functional therapy is something all good therapists are passionate about,” Hunnicutt said. “This is because we know both from research and our own experience that when the patient performs the same activities in therapy that they are going to be doing at home or in the community they have better outcomes and perceive themselves as more independent.”

To support the program, the hospital has a mock grocery store set up as part of its REAL Therapy gym where patients can practice navigating the store with a shopping cart, selecting their groceries from the shelves and paying for the items.

The program also typically includes community outings, but the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily halted them. This makes the hospital’s REAL Therapy gym even more important.

“Having a place where you can safely practice things like going to the grocery store, getting in and out of the car, going to a restaurant or deli–this type of functional therapy gives the patient a taste of normal and it also gives them confidence for when they leave us and return home,” Hunnicutt said.

The team at Encompass Health Arlington cares for the whole patient, and that extends beyond the physical components of recovery. A patient’s mental wellbeing is a priority, as well, and is even more important during the pandemic.

Therapists have gotten creative with incorporating the family into a patient’s therapy sessions despite visitor restrictions in hospitals, be it through FaceTime or window visits. While visitors are restricted, Hunnicutt said the role of the therapist is even more important, and a dedicated therapist can help fill the void a patient may be feeling.

 “The patients know right now that their families can’t be with them in the hospital, but that therapist is going to show up every day,” Hunnicutt said. “The therapist is someone who is reliable and someone who is going to be there for them and the therapist isn’t going to give up on them.”

Tracie Hunnicutt, MS, CCC-SLP, Therapy Manager, received her training as a speech-language pathologist at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. The early part of her career was focused on the care of traumatic brain injury (TBI) patients with an emphasis on community re-entry. From this setting, she developed a strong foundation in functional therapy as a tool to return patients back to school, work, community, and home activities.

Encompass Health’s Powered by Care series profiles how Company leaders and clinicians are delivering on our promise of connected care and superior outcomes.

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