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Study: Telehealth Helps Dementia Patients Recover ‘Lost’ Words

Northwestern University researchers used a home-grown telehealth platform to link dementia and Alzheimer's patients with speech-language pathologists.

By Eric Wicklund

- A Northwestern University study has found that a telehealth platform can help dementia patients maintain and even improve their ability to remember and communicate by giving them access to specialists.

Researchers used the Communication Bridge platform developed at Northwestern to connect people with Alzheimer’s dementia or primary progressive aphasia to specially trained speech-language pathologists.  Via the secure video link, the patients worked on language and remembering skills, and were given online “homework” between each session to reinforce those skills.

At the end of the eight-month pilot program, researchers found significant improvement among the patients in recalling “lost” words or concepts. One woman could recall the names of flowers in her garden, and another could remember the names of her grandchildren, while another man could order his favorite meal from a local restaurant.

"This is not a cure, but we may be able to delay some of the progression and maximize that person's remaining abilities so they can compensate as long as possible," Emily J. Rogalski, associate professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the study’s lead author, told News-Medical.net.

The study, published in the November 2016 issue of “Alzheimer's & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions,” an Elsevier publication, focused on 34 participants in 21 states and Canada. It consisted of eight one-hour video sessions with a trained SLP over two months and two follow-up evaluations, one two months after the sessions were concluded and one six months later.

The study indicates people dealing with aphasia, whether it be from Alzheimer’s, dementia, a stroke or some other neurological issue, can benefit from a telehealth platform that enables them to stay at home and connect with trained specialists, no matter where they’re located. Aside from the improvement in clinical outcomes, the platform also reduces time and money spent on travelling, enables patients and their caregivers to connect from their own homes, and gives those specialists a means of working with more patients.

Rogalski and her research team noted in their report that few programs have explored how speech-language pathologists can help people with dementia, or how a telehealth platform can enable even more access. They also noted that most health plans – including Medicare – don’t currently reimburse for such a platform.

“Our results suggest that Web-based [speech-language therapy] is feasible and that some statistically significant gains [e.g., in communication confidence] can be made after eight [weekly] sessions  … highlighting that an Internet-based model of therapy has the potential to improve access to care,” the report noted.

"It doesn't matter where the patient lives or where the speech-language pathologist lives. You can get the same quality of care anywhere in the world," Rogalski told News-Medical.net.

"A lot of people said they went from feeling like they had no control over their disease to feeling like were really fighting back and empowered," added Becky Khayum, an SLT and consultant who worked on the study. "They felt like they could more fully participate in life in spite of their disease."

Dig Deeper:

Telehealth Cuts Treatment Costs, Improves Outcomes for Autistic Children and Their Families

Telemedicine Closes the Gap in Specialty Referrals

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