Pulmonary Rehab Reduces COPD Readmissions

Ingrid Hein

August 18, 2020

Pulmonary rehabilitation reduces the likelihood that patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) will be readmitted to the hospital in the year after discharge by 33%, new research shows, but few patients participate in those programs.

In fact, in a retrospective cohort of 197,376 patients from 4446 hospitals, only 1.5% of patients initiated pulmonary rehabilitation in the 90 days after hospital discharge.

"This is a striking finding," said Mihaela Stefan, PhD, from the University of Massachusetts Medical School–Baystate in Springfield. "Our study demonstrates that we need to increase access to rehabilitation to reduce the risk of readmissions."

Not enough patients are initiating rehabilitation, but the onus is not only on them; the system is failing them. "We wanted to understand how much pulmonary rehabilitation lowers the readmission rate," Stefan told Medscape Medical News.

So she and her colleagues examined the records of patients who were hospitalized for COPD in 2014 to see whether they had begun rehabilitation in the 90 days after discharge and whether they were readmitted to the hospital in the subsequent 12 months.

Patients who were unlikely to initiate pulmonary rehabilitation — such as those with dementia or metastatic cancer and those discharged to hospice care or a nursing home — were excluded from the analysis, Stefan said during her presentation at the study results at the virtual American Thoracic Society (ATS) 2020 International Conference.

The risk analysis was complex because many patients died before the year was out, and "a patient who dies has no risk of being readmitted," she explained. Selection bias was also a factor because patients who do pulmonary rehab tend to be in better shape.

The researchers used propensity score matching and Anderson–Gill models of cumulative rehospitalizations or death at 1 year with time-varying exposure to pulmonary rehabilitation to account for clustering of individual events and adjust for covariates. "It was a complicated risk analysis," she said.

In the year after discharge, 130,660 patients (66%) were readmitted to the hospital. The rate of rehospitalization was lower for those who initiated rehabilitation than for those who did not (59% vs 66%), as was the mean number of readmissions per patient (1.4 vs 1.8).

Rehabilitation was associated with a lower risk for readmission or death (hazard ratio, 0.67; 95% CI, 0.66 - 0.69).

"We know the referral rates are low and that pulmonary rehabilitation is effective in clinical trials," said Stefan, and now "we see that pulmonary rehabilitation is effective when you look at patients in real life."

From a provider perspective, "we need to make sure that hospitals get more money for pulmonary rehabilitation. Cardiac rehabilitation is paid for," she explained. "But pulmonary rehab is not a lucrative business. I don't know why the CMS pays more for cardiac."

A rehabilitation program generally consists of 36 sessions, held two or three times a week, and many patients can't afford that on their own, she noted. Transportation is another huge issue.

A recent study in which semi-structured interviews were conducted with 15 COPD patients showed that the main barriers to enrollment in a pulmonary rehabilitation program are lack of awareness, family obligations, transportation, and lack of motivation, said Stefan, who was involved in that research.

Telehealth rehabilitation programs might become more available in the near future, given the COVID pandemic. But "currently, Medicare doesn't pay for telerehab," she said. Virtual sessions might attract more patients, but lack of computer access and training could present another barrier for some.

PAH Rehab

Uptake for pulmonary rehabilitation is as low for patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) as it is for those with COPD, according to another study presented at the virtual ATS meeting.

An examination of the electronic health records of 111,356 veterans who experienced incident PAH from 2010 to 2016 showed that only 1,737 (1.6%) followed through on pulmonary rehabilitation.

"Exercise therapy is safe and effective at improving outcomes," lead author Thomas Cascino, MD, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said in an ATS press release. "Recognizing that it is being underutilized is a necessary first step in working toward increasing patient access to rehab.

His group is currently working on a trial for home-based rehabilitation "using wearable technology as a means to expand access for people unable to come to center-based rehab for a variety of reasons," he explained.

"The goal of all our treatments is to help people feel better and live longer," Cascino added.

Stefan and Cascino have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American Thoracic Society (ATS) 2020 International Conference: Session A94. Presented August 5, 2020.

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