The most common complication arthroplasty surgeons worry about after total knee arthroplasty (TKA) is stiffness, which occurs in a reported 15.98% of cases.1 The notion of TKA patients doing their postoperative physical therapy (PT) on their own at home with a “virtual avatar” gives me pause because it might increase the risk of stiffness. However, if patients could save money, make satisfactory progress in the comfort of their own home, and not experience undue knee stiffness, virtual PT technology would be worth it.
In the January 15, 2020 issue of The Journal, Bettger et al. report on a randomized controlled trial that compared virtual to traditional PT after TKA. The authors hypothesized that virtual PT would cost less and would be clinically noninferior to traditional PT. The FDA-approved Virtual Exercise Rehabilitation Assistant (VERA) studied in this trial uses 3-D technology to track patient movement and an avatar (digitally simulated coach) to assist patients through PT exercises. Virtual PT technology like this not only has the potential to reduce costs (particularly travel costs incurred by patients who live in rural areas), but also to help address current and expected therapist shortages.
There were 143 patients in the virtual PT group and 144 in the traditional PT group. Patients randomized to virtual PT had the technology set up in their home prior to surgery. In addition to avatar-assisted home exercises, virtual PT patients had weekly “video visits” with a human therapist.
Bettger et al. found the median 12-week costs for virtual and traditional PT to be $1,050 and $2,805, respectively. Additionally, at 6 weeks, virtual PT was found to be noninferior to traditional PT in terms of patient outcome measures, knee range of motion, and gait speed. At 12 weeks, virtual PT was found to be noninferior to usual care in terms of pain and hospital readmissions.
I am relieved that virtual PT has the potential to provide cost savings, without apparently increasing the risk of knee stiffness. The cost savings and at-home convenience may be especially important for elderly TKA patients who are living on a fixed income and for whom transportation issues are often vexing. I hope technology like VERA continues to contribute to improved patient satisfaction and easier access to PT.
Jaime L. Bellamy, DO (@jaimelbellamyDO) is an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in hip and knee reconstruction in Fort Bragg, NC and a member of the JBJS Social Media Advisory Board.
- Can administrative data be used to analyze complications following total joint arthroplasty? Clair AJ, et al. J Arthroplasty, 2015;30(9 Suppl):17-20. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.arth.2015.01.060