The benefits of virtual pulmonary rehabilitation programs for COPD

Online programs target those who can't travel to a hospital or clinic

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by Caroline Gainer |

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Pulmonary rehabilitation can help to significantly increase exercise tolerance in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Many hospitals have pulmonary rehabilitation programs, but some patients have difficulty getting to them because they don’t drive, can’t secure a ride, or don’t have easy access to public transportation.

One solution to this problem is to attend virtual pulmonary rehabilitation programs.

According to a 2022 article published in the journal American Family Physician, virtual pulmonary rehabilitation “is equivalent to in-person pulmonary rehabilitation at reducing symptoms of breathlessness and increasing six-minute walking distance. … Participants in both virtual and in-person pulmonary rehabilitation programs show similar improvements on quality-of-life questionnaires.”

From my work as a peer coach, a role in which I help guide other patients through the pulmonary rehabilitation process, I’ve found that some people are afraid they can’t do the exercises in the in-person programs, and they’d prefer to exercise on their own. Others prefer to exercise in a group. The good news is that both types of people can find a virtual program that fits their needs.

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The features of 3 programs

I served as a member of a team put together by the COPD Foundation to evaluate three virtual rehabilitation programs. (Note: I received no compensation for reviewing them.)

The first was developed by Wellinks and Hartford HealthCare. This program was actually the one that prompted my interest in becoming a peer coach. Its health coaching helped me evaluate my own progress and rethink some of my exercise habits.

Patients can complete the modules of the Wellinks program at their own pace, which is beneficial for those who have difficulty keeping to a set schedule.

In the program, a respiratory therapist posts exercise videos for patients to follow. There are also educational videos for patients to watch, as well as a visit with a health coach via Zoom. The chat with the health coach is the only part that needs to be scheduled.

Wellinks supplies an oximeter that connects to a phone app that logs the measurements, and a spirometer to measure lung capacity that connects via Bluetooth.

The second program I helped to evaluate was developed by AnsibleHealth. This one features sessions led by a trained respiratory therapist. A board-certified pulmonologist is also available.

The program offers multiple sessions with a wide range of scheduling options. One outstanding component of AnsibleHealth’s program is Ansible Chat, which allows patients to have virtual meetings and chat with other patients. These chats are monitored by Ansible staff.

The program provides an oximeter and a pulse monitor that link to a tablet via Bluetooth. Patients can connect with a respiratory therapist in real time via the devices so they can perform the exercises. The program also has an educational section.

The third program, by Kivo Health, offers a variety of sessions with three to five participants. During the first session, patients spend time getting to know one another and getting comfortable with the equipment. Respiratory therapists lead the exercises while a board-certified pulmonologist observes. Software monitors patients’ heart rates and oxygen levels as they exercise. The company supplies tablets, exercise bands, and oximeters.

When I was helping with beta testing, I’d just had a bad exacerbation of symptoms. The therapist asked me to sit down for a few minutes until my oxygen levels improved, which made me feel safe.

I’m sure other quality programs exist, but these are the ones I have firsthand knowledge of.

Whatever the program, the goal of virtual pulmonary rehabilitation is to help patients continue to exercise, practice their breathing techniques, and apply the knowledge they’ve learned.

Have you tried a virtual pulmonary rehabilitation program? Was it useful? Please share in the comments below. 

Note: COPD News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of COPD News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.