Pulmonary Perspectives®

The double-edged sword of virtual pulmonary rehabilitation


Pulmonary rehabilitation (PR) is an invaluable program typically set in structured in-person environments for individuals living with chronic respiratory conditions. It offers a comprehensive approach to improving lung health and overall quality of life using a combination of tailored exercise routines, educational sessions, and emotional support. It empowers our patients to better manage their conditions, improve their fitness level, and regain a sense of control over their lives. However, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic increased the use of telemedicine as a method for providing health care (Shaver J. Prim Care. 2022;49[4]:517).

Many patients have welcomed the convenience offered by virtual care, and studies have demonstrated high levels of patient satisfaction (Polinski JM, et al. Gen Intern Med. 2016;31[3]:269). Geography also drives telehealth use. In urban areas in the United States, the median travel distance is 7.5 miles one way with a resulting travel time of 3 to 25 minutes. In rural areas, the estimated travel distance is three times as long. Distance and travel time have been recognized as major barriers to attending PR (Keating A, et al. Chron Respir Dis. 2011;8[2]:89).

Access to PR is also hindered by lack of program availability. As of 2019, there were only 831 pulmonary rehab centers in the United States serving roughly 24 million patients with COPD. Only 561 of these centers are certified by the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation, leaving only one certified center for every 43,000 patients with COPD (Chan L, et al. J Rural Health. 2006;22[2]:140). As such, virtual PR is one option for augmenting availability and accessibility.

While virtual PR programs offer numerous advantages, including accessibility and convenience, there are inherent risks and challenges. There is also concern that they are inferior to in-person PR. They offer less supervision by trained health care professionals and no immediate access to medical assistance. Combined with the absence of real-time monitoring of vitals or symptoms, there may be a higher risk of adverse events despite the incorporation of safety measures. Furthermore, the lack of accountability forces an increased reliance on self-motivation, which may hinder progress (Spruit MA, et al. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2013;188[8]:e13).

Although the digital divide is narrowing rapidly, reliable access to technology, combined with poor internet connections or computer literacy, will prevent adoption by some patients. Even in well-resourced areas, technical issues can disrupt continuity. Finally, virtual PR lacks the intangible benefits from in-person group sessions. Social interactions in this already isolated subset of patients are lost in virtual PR, and the cultivation of motivation and support to seek a common goal goes unrealized.

While these concerns are appreciated, PR is currently highly underutilized and essentially unavailable to most pulmonary patients. As such, further study is needed to shape the future design of quality virtual PR programs. In the March 2023 issue of the journal CHEST, Huynh and colleagues published an observational cohort study comparing virtual with traditional PR programs (Huynh VC, et al. Chest. 2023; Mar;163[3]:529). Of the 554 participants in the study, 171 were enrolled in virtual and 383 to in-person PR. Attendance and drop-out rates did not differ, CAT scores significantly improved in both programs, and there were no adverse events during virtual PR. Participants in the virtual group received a TheraBand and were required to have a sturdy chair, three large step-lengths of empty space surrounding their chair, and access to internet/Zoom. They had one-on-one Zoom meetings but relied mostly on staff-made or online videos. These results replicate past investigations that have demonstrated low adverse event rates, positive overall patient satisfaction, and noninferiority in patient-centered outcomes with PR. The total volume of data remains limited though (Cox NS, et al. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2021;Issue 1;Art No: CD013040).

PR is an essential resource for the management of chronic lung diseases. Given existing barriers and the growing number of eligible patients, we must embrace alternative delivery strategies, all the while ensuring that a quality and useful product is deployed (Rochester CL, et al. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2015;192[11]:1373). Additional study is needed to standardize and validate the implementation of virtual PR. Ultimately, virtual and alternative methods of care delivery may help optimize outcomes for our patients where more traditional methods fall short.

The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Veterans Affairs or the U.S. government. Dr. Cagle and Dr. Gartman are with the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and Providence VA Medical Center, Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine. Providence, R.I.

Next Article: