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Telerehabilitation is noninferior to in-clinic rehabilitation for poststroke arm function



Telerehabilitation is as effective as in-clinic rehabilitation for improving arm function after stroke, according to research presented at the International Stroke Conference sponsored by the American Heart Association. Telerehabilitation also provides patient education as effectively as in-clinic rehabilitation, said Steven C. Cramer, MD, professor of neurology at the University of California, Irvine.

Stroke is a leading cause of disability, and more than 80% of patients with stroke have motor deficits when they present to the ED. Research indicates that high doses of rehabilitation therapy improve brain and motor function. However, many patients get low amounts of rehabilitation because of obstacles such as travel difficulties and shortages of therapy providers. “We reasoned that telerehabilitation is ideally suited to efficiently provide a large dose of useful, high-quality rehab therapy after stroke,” Dr. Cramer said.

Participants received supervised and unsupervised therapy

He and his colleagues enrolled patients who had experienced a stroke during the previous 4-36 weeks and who had arm motor deficits into their study. Eligible participants were adults, had experienced ischemic stroke or intracerebral hemorrhage, and had an arm Fugl-Meyer score between 22 and 56 out of 66.

Dr. Cramer’s group randomized 124 participants at 11 National Institutes of Health StrokeNet sites to 6 weeks of intensive arm rehabilitation therapy, plus stroke education, delivered in clinic or at home by a telehealth system. For both groups, treatment included 36 sessions that each lasted for 70 minutes. Half of the sessions were supervised and half were not. All sessions included at least 15 minutes of arm exercises and at least 15 minutes of functional training. Unsupervised sessions also included at least 5 minutes of stroke education on topics such as prevention, risk factors, recognition, and treatment. Participants in the in-clinic group worked with therapists in the clinic on supervised days and at home with a personalized booklet on unsupervised days. Participants in the telerehabilitation group played specially designed and individually tailored computer games at home on all days and had video conferences with therapists on supervised days. The treatment groups included approximately equal numbers of patients; treatment duration, intensity, and frequency were matched between groups.

The investigators hypothesized that telerehabilitation was not inferior to in-clinic rehabilitation. The study’s primary endpoint was change in Fugl-Meyer score from baseline to 30 days after the end of therapy. Secondary end points included Box and Blocks score (that is, a measure of arm function), Stroke Impact Scale–hand, and gains in stroke knowledge. The researchers defined the noninferiority margin as 30% of the gains of the in-clinic group. End points were evaluated by blinded assessors.

Patients had clinically meaningful gains

Participants’ average age was 61 years; the mean baseline arm Fugl-Meyer score was 42. Stroke onset had occurred at a mean of 4.5 months previously, and most strokes were ischemic. In all, 10 participants dropped out of the study. The rate of compliance was 98.3% in the telerehabilitation group and 93.0% in the in-clinic group.

The change in Fugl-Meyer score from baseline to 30 days post therapy was 8.36 points in the in-clinic group and 7.86 points in the telerehabilitation group. The changes in this score were higher than the minimal clinically important difference. The difference between groups, adjusted for covariance, was approximately 0. In addition, the 95% confidence interval for the change in score in the telerehabilitation group was within the noninferiority margin. “We can say that telerehabilitation is not inferior” to in-clinic therapy, said Dr. Cramer.

Telerehabilitation also was noninferior to in-clinic rehabilitation on the Box and Blocks score, and gains in stroke knowledge were significant and comparable in both groups. “Interestingly, the arm motor gains did not differ whether the subjects had aphasia or not,” said Dr. Cramer.

The investigators measured activity-inherent motivation (that is, how much a patient likes rehabilitation) using the Physical Activity Enjoyment Scale. Scores were higher in the in-clinic group, compared with the telerehabilitation group. “People like going to sit with a live human, and they like the longer time with the live human. This is something for us to study further and understand,” said Dr. Cramer.

Dr. Cramer and colleagues observed six serious adverse events in the in-clinic group and one in the telerehabilitation group, such as pneumonia or palpitations, all of which were deemed unrelated to therapy. Adverse events related to therapy (for example, shoulder pain and fatigue) were equally distributed between the two groups.

“What we were trying to do with home-based telehealth does not compete with or replace traditional rehab medicine. It is expanding tools for occupational and physical therapists, for nurses and physicians,” said Dr. Cramer.

Future studies could examine the efficacy of telerehabilitation in the treatment of language deficits, leg weakness, micturition, and dysphagia. “We might also study telehealth such as this to see how we can improve access and lower the cost of poststroke rehab care,” he concluded.

The study was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute Of Child Health & Human Development and several grants from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Dr. Cramer has an ownership interest in TRCare, a company that plans to market a telerehabilitation system and was not involved in the study. In addition, he is a consultant or advisor for MicroTransponder, Dart Neuroscience, Neurolutions, Regenera, Abbvie, SanBio, and TRCare.

SOURCE: Cramer SC et al. ISC 2019, Abstract LB23.

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