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  • JAMA Neurology: Telerehab Program Works as Well as Clinic-Based Program for Improved Arm Function Poststroke

    It's probably not news to physical therapists (PTs) when research backs up the idea that patients who experience arm impairments poststroke will tend to make greater functional improvements with larger and longer doses of rehabilitation. Unfortunately, PTs are also familiar with the fact that what's optimal isn't necessarily what's typical, with challenges such as payment systems, logistics, and clinic access making it difficult to achieve the best possible results. That's where telerehabilitation could make a big difference, say authors of a new study that found an entirely remotely delivered rehab program to be as effective as an equal amount of clinic-based sessions.

    The findings lend further support to the ideas behind APTA's efforts to increase telehealth opportunities for PTs and their patients—a significant component of the association's current public policy priorities. In addition, APTA provides multiple telehealth resources on a webpage devoted to the topic, and has created the Frontiers in Research, Science, and Technology Council that provides interested members and other stakeholders with an online community to discuss technology's role in physical therapy.

    The study, published in JAMA Neurology (abstract only available for free), involved 124 participants who experienced arm motor deficits poststroke. All participants were enrolled in a rehabilitation therapy program that included 36 70-minute treatment sessions, half of which were supervised, over a 6- to 8-week period. The only major difference: one group's supervised sessions were face-to-face with a physical therapist (PT) or occupational therapist (OT), while the other group received telerehab from a PT or OT via a computer with video capabilities, accompanied by the use of a gaming system.

    Researchers were interested in finding out how patients fared in each approach, using scores from the Fugl Meyer (FM) assessment of motor recovery poststroke as their primary measure. Authors of the study also measured patient adherence with therapy as well as levels of patient motivation related to how well they liked the therapy they were receiving and their degree of dedication to treatment goals.

    Using a treatment approach "based on an upper-extremity task-specific training manual and Accelerated Skill Acquisition Program," researchers set up matched programs that included at least 15 minutes per session of arm exercises from a common set of 88 possible exercises, at least 15 minutes of functional training, and 5 minutes of stroke education. The clinic-based participants received in-person instruction on the exercises and used "standard exercise hardware"; the telerehab patients received instructions via video link and engaged in functional exercise via a videogame interface. Here's what the researchers found:

    • Both groups improved at about the same rate, with the telerehab participants averaging a 7.86 FM gain, compared with an average gain of 8.36 points for the clinic-based group.
    • Improvements were also about the same for the subgroup of participants who entered rehabilitation more than 90 days poststroke, with these "late" participants averaging a 6.6-point gain for the telerehab group and a 7.4-point increase for the clinic-based group.
    • While both groups reported high levels of dedication to treatment goals, the clinic-based group tended to report better levels of motivation and satisfaction. Adherence was also high for both groups, with a 93.4% adherence rate for the clinic-based group and a rate of 98.3% for the telerehab group.
    • Both groups increased their knowledge of stroke at similar rates.

    As for the technical details of the telerehab sessions, the system included a computer linked to the internet, a table, a chair, and 12 "gaming input devices." Keyboards were not necessary. The supervised sessions began with a 30-minute videoconference between the patient and therapist, and the functional training games used were designed to match the functional task work being done with the clinic-based participants. Unsupervised sessions adhered to the same content but didn't include contact with the therapist.

    "In an era when prescribed doses of poststroke rehabilitation therapy are declining, adversely affecting patient outcomes, these and prior findings suggest that outcomes could be improved for many patients…if larger doses of rehabilitation therapy were prescribed," authors write. "Our study found that a 6-week course of daily home-based [telerehab] is safe, is rated favorably by patients, is associated with excellent treatment adherence, and produces substantial gains in arm function that were not inferior to dose-matched interventions delivered in the clinic."

    Authors acknowledged that patient satisfaction with telerehab might be improved by increasing the amount of time spent with the therapist—providing that therapist is properly trained. "Current results underscore the importance of maintaining a licensed therapist's involvement during [telerehab]," they write.

    Ultimately, it's still too early to determine just how generalizable the findings are to other populations and conditions, the researchers say, but all indicators seem to point to the need for increasing the availability of telerehab and its inclusion in health plans.

    "The US Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 expanded telehealth benefits," authors write. "Eventually, home-based [telerehab] may plan an ascendant role for improving patient outcomes."

    Research-related stories featured in PT in Motion News are intended to highlight a topic of interest only and do not constitute an endorsement by APTA. For synthesized research and evidence-based practice information, visit the association's PTNow website.

    Comments

    • As one of the co-authors of this study, I think it is important to point out that this was a non-inferiority study which means that the working hypothesis is that the telerehab option would be equivalent to dose matched direct therapy. The study was NOT intended to demonstrate that one would be superior to the other. Our findings create the opportunity to develop more detailed telerehab gaming options for home based training and direct communication with a clinic-based therapist.

      Posted by Steve Wolf on 7/10/2019 3:51 PM

    • Great news for clinical efficacy of TeleRehab! Let's use this as another springboard for advocacy and continued efforts to advance reimbursement initiatives. The fact that this research was reported in JAMA Neurology is huge!

      Posted by Carmen Cooper-Oguz on 7/10/2019 4:51 PM

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