New Physical Therapy App Brings the Textbook to Life

by Bethany Wagner '14

Michael Wong, PT, DPT, O.C.S., FAAOMPT, associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, knew there was a problem in physical therapy classrooms. Students learned information from their textbooks and passed their exams, yet were not fully prepared when faced with a real patient. “A void existed between reading the textbook and sitting in front of a person experiencing terrible back pain,” said Wong. “We read and taught concepts chapter-by-chapter, but solving problems in the clinic requires connecting different areas of knowledge together.”

The idea for a solution came to Wong as he ate lunch one day: an iPhone/iPad app, the next step of Pocket Orthopedics, the pocket guide he published in 2010. Excited, he grabbed a nearby napkin and began sketching out what the app would look like. All the information in the app would link together—no more flipping from page 403 to 719 in a textbook to find solutions. “Real-world problems don’t have straightforward, textbook answers,” he said. “Physical therapists and students need a tool to help pull all the information together. That’s where the app comes in.”

Wong based the app on the Journal of Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy’s guidelines, a published set of the best clinical practice procedures drawn from current research, used by physical therapists in more than 30 countries. The app brings the guidelines to life, replacing every picture, technique, and description with videos. “Physical therapy is as much a hands-on skill as it is a cognitive science,” said Wong. “Textbooks require students to look at a picture and read step-by-step instructions, but a 30-second video teaches techniques in an easy way to understand and replicate.”

After years of dreaming, gathering input from physical therapy experts, filming more than 300 sample videos, and designing a streamlined user interface, Wong launched the Clinical Pattern Recognition: Low Back Pain app. One year later, a version focusing on hip and thigh pain hit Apple’s App Store. It soared in popularity as the best-selling physical therapy app and the sixth top medical app, garnering 5-star reviews from users across the country.

How exactly does the app work? When a physical therapist meets with a patient, or a student must solve hypothetical situations in a lab, they select what symptoms they observe. The app helps them reach a diagnosis, discovering the cause of a certain pain experience, and presents them with examination and intervention suggestions and videos. Interventions include manual therapy, exercises, and patient education to optimize patient restoration. “The app takes users through the thought processes master clinicians use to solve pain problems,” said Wong. “Too often students are forced to pick these up in the clinic where life is much more chaotic and unpredictable.”

The app also solves the problem of keeping up-to-date with current research. In the fast-paced medical world, textbooks become obsolete almost by the time they are published. But as new official guidelines or groundbreaking research surface, Wong can update the app so that every user has access to the latest information automatically. “We have an incredible ability to deliver the latest evidence almost as fast as it can be published,” he said.

Today, APU physical therapy students still study textbooks, listen to lectures, and attend labs. But now the app reinforces the information in new ways. “Sometimes we overwhelm students with large volumes of information and a lack of context; they cram for an exam, then forget the information and move on to the next chapter,” said Wong. “By combining different modes of learning, our students have the time and tools to integrate the material at their own pace before moving on to the next piece.”

Future plans for the app include a knee version slated for release in January, and ankle and foot; neck and thorax; shoulder; and elbow, wrist, and hand versions in development. The apps will also be available in Spanish and Mandarin. “This isn’t a business move—I want to improve physical therapy education worldwide. If this app impacts just 40 students, 400,000 patients will one day be well-served.”

Find out more about the app at

Click here for a tour of the app’s features.

Click here to see the app in action in an APU classroom.