Guest Post: “Telemedicine” for Knee OA Works

telerehabOrthoBuzz occasionally receives posts from guest bloggers. This guest post comes from Chad Krueger, MD, in response to a recent study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Few disease processes are as prevalent within the United States as hip and knee osteoarthritis (OA).  While OA is commonly thought to be a disease of older age, the reality is that over half of all individuals with knee arthritis are younger than 65. While some of those individuals will eventually go on to have a knee arthroplasty, before that, most OA patients try various other treatments in an effort to decrease pain and increase function.  Medications such as NSAIDs and others are certainly a part of these treatment efforts, but nonpharmacologic treatments are also widely recommended.

However, as Bennell et al. clearly state in their Annals article, patients face multiple barriers to the implementation of these nonoperative, nonpharmacologic modalities, including cost and transportation to relevant clinical specialists. The authors used these barriers as the rationale for a randomized trial in which an intervention group of knee OA patients received Internet-based educational material, online pain-coping skills training, and videoconferencing with a physiotherapist who provided individualized exercises for each patient. A control group received only the educational material.

At 3 and 9 months, both groups showed improvements in pain and function, but the intervention group had significantly greater improvements than the control group.  More importantly, the people in the intervention group largely adhered to all online programs on their own and were very satisfied with the prescribed treatments, especially the video-based physiotherapy component.

Internet-based health interventions are certainly not new. However, my suspicion is that 20 years from now we will look back and wonder why we did not use them more often. They are self-directed, cost-effective, reproducible, and available to any of the 87% of Americans over the age of 50 who, according to the Pew Research Center, use the Internet. These online interventions require no driving to an office, and patients can easily track their own progress by seeing how many modules they have completed.

While there are certainly limitations to the findings from Benell et al., as an accompanying editorial by Lisa Mandl, MD points out, the study serves as a very strong proof of concept that should be expanded upon. Dr. Mandl herself proclaims that “these results are encouraging and show that ‘telemedicine’ is clearly ready for prime time.”

With the number of ways we “stay connected” always increasing, it seems important for orthopaedists to learn how to use these technologies to benefit our patients.  Doing so may require some adjustments, but the ultimate goal of improving the quality of life for our patients warrants whatever creativity and open-mindedness might be necessary.

Chad Krueger, MD is a military orthopaedic surgeon at Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

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