Telerehabilitation has been defined as “the use of telecommunication technology to deliver rehabilitation services at a distance” (Vesmarovich et al. 1999; p 264). Telerehabilitation allows for visual and verbal interaction between an individual with SCI and a health care provider. Impaired mobility and great distances to specialized SCI centers often make follow-up care difficult for individuals with SCI (Mathewson et al. 2000; Galea et al. 2006). Telerehabilitation has the potential to deliver medical rehabilitation including education, nutritional and psychosocial elements of health care at a distance thereby facilitating continuity of care (Galea et al. 2006). Shorter lengths of stay have potentially increased the need for education post-discharge and technology can be used to continue education begun during inpatient rehabilitation including education on pressure injury prevention and care of ulcers if they occur. Continuation of pressure injury prevention education and early detection and intervention via technology may reduce the need for hospitalization related to pressure injuries (Phillips et al. 2001). The use of a videophone capable of transmitting high resolution images, and verbal interactions between nurse, patient and caregiver could mean accurate and timely assessment and treatment of wounds and improved healing (Mathewson et al. 1999). In a study conducted at a mock home setting, Hill et al. (2009) found “video conferencing was better overall than the use of the telephone when assessing the detailed clinical characteristics of a pressure injury (p 200).” Both were found to be useful when assessing for the presence of a pressure injury.
The 2013 Canadian Best Practice Guideline for Prevention and Management of Pressure injuries in People with SCI provided a Level IV recommendation (based on studies of telerehabilitation for wounds of various etiologies including SCI) telerehabilitation as a promising approach for delivering pressure injury prevention and management to people with SCI.
Vesmarovich et al. (1999) described the use of telerehabilitation delivered via a videophone system that transmitted still images and audio to treat stage III and IV ulcers. While no statistical results were reported, 7 out of 12 ulcer sites healed. Using the same videophone system, Philips et al. (1999) divided SCI participants into 3 groups. The videophone group had the highest number of identified and/or reported ulcers. The annualized data for emergency room (ER) visits, hospitalizations and health care visits were similar for the video and telephone groups while hospitalizations and visits were less in the standard care group. No differences were significant at p<0.05. However a small non-randomized sample size and several other limitations were identified to inform future investigations.
Results of these two small studies fail to support the use of this form of telerehabilitation in delivery of cost effective prevention strategies and early pressure injury identification and treatment. However, Houlihan et al. (2013) did achieve some positive results by employing interactive voice response (IVR) telephone called “CareCall” to enable virtual health care to monitor and assess patients’ health with respect to pressure injuries and depression and to increase appropriate use of health resources such as preventative outpatient clinics and to reduce ER visits. Participants (N=142) were randomized into either a control (i.e., usual care) or intervention (i.e., “CareCall”) group and received service over a 6 month period. Those receiving “CareCall” received weekly automated calls and could call into the service at any time to receive algorithm-based, branched-logic modules (scripts of content deemed relevant to their health concerns). The scripts were delivered by both clinicians and persons with spinal cord disease and were developed through consideration of health behavior change theory (i.e., Social Cognitive Theory and Transtheoretical Model) to promote healthy behaviours. Using this approach, women were found to have reduced pressure injury incidence over the study period (p<0.0001) for the “CareCall” group versus control, whereas men did not. There was no difference in healthcare utilization between the two groups although the intervention group did self-report perceived increases in health-care availability.
Arora et al. (2017) explored effectiveness of intervention at a distance using weekly telephone contact as the higher tech options are not feasible in low-and middle-income countries. This study was a multi-site RCT in India and Bangladesh. The intervention group received weekly telephone consultations from an experienced health care professional, on a wide variety of factors. The control group received standard care. The size of the pressure injury was the primary outcome measure, which showed greater improvement in the intervention group (P=0.08). The intervention group also felt more confident in being able to manage their pressure injury, had improvements on their Braden scale scores and their PUSH scores. The authors question whether the size of the treatment effect was meaningful. The authors also suggested that there was some indication that there was a greater benefit to health and wellness from the regular telephone contact that just for the pressure injuries based on the World Health Organization Disability Assessment Schedule score between group difference (95% CI 0.8-3.8), but again they questioned the treatment effect meaningfulness.
Hilgart et al. (2014) explored the effectiveness of intervention using an internet format called iSHIFTup. This program was developed and tested previously, with this study focusing on the participants’ perceived effectiveness of the program in relation to prevention. The authors report that the majority of participants found the program easy to use, effective and useful to enable them to implement the strategies recommended from the program and to independently manage their skin care. It is suggested that this type of intervention holds promise for ongoing education and intervention regardless of the distance from the facility.
There is level 1b evidence (from one randomized controlled trial; Houlihan et al. 2013) that telerehabilitation using an automated call-in system with built-in theory-based behavior change strategies may make a significant difference for women but not men in preventing pressure injuries post SCI.
There is level 4 evidence (from one case series; Vesmarovich et al. 1999) that telerehabilitation via videophone to support clinical interactions and digital photography does not make a significant difference in the prevention and treatment of pressure injuries post SCI.
There is level 2 evidence (from one randomized control trial; Arora et al. 2017) that treatment intervention provided by telephone has potential to provide a low cost means of treatment intervention in low-and middle-income countries.
There is level 4 evidence (from one post-test study; Hilgart et al. 2014) that a comprehensive prevention program provided using an internet format has potential to meet ongoing needs for pressure management beyond the hospital/rehabilitation facility.
The role of telerehabilitation in engaging individuals with SCI with prevention education and treatment programs has demonstrated potential but to be fully successful, requires a compliment between program content, delivery format and accessibility to that format for all people with an SCI regardless of living situations.