Telerehab No Worse Than In-Person Care for Chronic Knee Pain

Physiotherapy conducted via video conference is noninferior to in-person sessions for the treatment of chronic knee pain, according to new research.

In the trial, participants assigned to in-person or telehealth sessions had similar improvements in knee pain and physical function over 3 months, while the online group had better session attendance and reported higher convenience.

While the COVID-19 pandemic increased the use of telerehabilitation physiotherapy services, it is not clear how these teleservices will be utilized moving forward, the study authors wrote. There is some research suggesting that both in-person and online physiotherapy are equally effective, but surveys suggest that both providers and patients remain unconvinced.

“Based on pandemic telerehabilitation experiences, less than half of allied health clinicians believe telerehabilitation is as effective as in-person care and almost half of patients think video conferencing with a physiotherapist provides lower quality care,” study first author Rana Hinman, PhD, professor of physiotherapy at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues wrote in their report published online in The Lancet on March 7, 2024.

‘A Game Changer’ for Physical Therapy

photo of Dan White
Dr Daniel White

Commenting on the study for Medscape Medical News, Daniel White, ScD, an associate professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, called the research “a game changer” for physical therapy. 

“It’s showing that in-person care can be replicated in terms of efficacy,” in telehealth settings, he said. “From a telehealth perspective, it really opens the doors to access to people who have difficulty reaching physical therapists,” he added, “and puts us on stage with other modes of telehealth that are given as part of modern medicine.”

White noted that physical therapy treatment for knee osteoarthritis is underused, with just 10% of patients seeing a physical therapist prior to undergoing knee replacement. While knee replacements are effective interventions, he said, access to physical therapy could allow many patients to put off having surgery.

The findings not only provide solutions for access issues but also assuage concerns “that you’re going to get ‘physical therapy lite'” with telehealth, White added. 

“You can deliver physical therapy to this group that typically is not getting enough of it,” he said, “and it is just as effective when delivered online than if it were to be delivered in person.”

Noninferiority Maintained at 9 Months’ Follow-up

To understand how video conferencing physiotherapy consultations compared to in-person care, the researchers designed a non-inferiority randomized controlled trial. 

For the trial, researchers enrolled 394 adults with chronic knee pain who were aged ≥ 45 years, had activity-related joint pain, and either had no morning stiffness or morning stiffness lasting < 30 minutes. Other inclusion criteria were history of knee pain of ≥ 3 months, knee pain most days of the previous month, average walking pain score of four or more on the 11-point numeric rating scale (NRS) over the previous week, and difficulty walking and climbing stairs.

Participants also needed access to a computer device with internet as well as the ability to travel to the nearest trial physiotherapist.

The study recruited 15 physiotherapists across 27 practices in metropolitan Queensland and Victoria, Australia, of which 60% had no previous telerehabilitation experience. Physiotherapists were trained to conduct video sessions via e-learning, practice video consultations, and a competency video conferencing evaluation.

Participants were randomly assigned to in-person or video physiotherapist consultations, with both groups receiving five consultations over 3 months. All clients were prescribed a home-based strength training program and physical activity plan.

The primary outcomes were changes at 3 months in patient-reported knee pain (on a scale of 0-10), with an inferiority margin of 0.95, and physical function — assessed using the Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Arthritis Index (WOMAC) — with an inferiority margin of −5.44.

From December 10, 2019, to June 17, 2022, 204 participants were assigned to in-person sessions and 190 were assigned to telerehabilitation. At 3 months, both groups reported improved pain and physical function, with no significant differences between the two groups with either measure. The mean between-group difference was 0.16 (95% CI, −0.26 to 0.57) for knee pain and 1.65 (−0.23 to 3.53) for physical function. Noninferiority was also maintained at 9 months’ follow-up.

The trial took place over the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited participant ability to attend in-person consultations. In total, 84% of participants assigned to in-person rehabilitation attended at least three or more consultations compared with 96% of those assigned to telerehabilitation. In an additional analysis including only participants attending three or more sessions, improvement in knee pain and physical function was similar between the in-person or tele-rehabilitation groups “showing that the findings are robust,” the authors noted.

At 3 months, the telerehabilitation group ranked their sessions as more convenient that their in-person counterparts and reported greater adherence to their strengthening program. At 9 months’ follow-up, the telerehabilitation group had higher physical activity scores than the in-person group.

This research was funded by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council. Two authors reported grant funding paid to the University of Melbourne from the National Health & Medical Research Council, Australian Research Council, Medical Research Future Fund, and Medibank for research. White has been a paid speaker for Viatris. 

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