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Moving Research Forward While Staying Home: The Past, Present, and Future of Rehabilitation Research


In this episode of Kessler Foundation's podcast, Olga Boukrina, PhDNuri Erkut Kucukboyaci, PhD, and Ekaterina Dobryakova, PhD, share information about "Moving Research Forward While Staying Home: The Past, Present, and Future of Rehabilitation Research." 



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Below is a blog that's related to the conversation, written by Carolann Murphy, PA

The COVID-19 pandemic presents myriad challenges to researchers, especially those implementing clinical studies in vulnerable populations, such as people with disabilities. To report on the immediate impact on current rehabilitation research studies, as well on the design and implementation of future studies in the field, three of our scientists share their current experiences: Olga Boukrina, PhD, research scientist in the Center for Stroke Rehabilitation Research, Nuri Erkut Kucukboyaci, PhD, associate research scientist in the Center for Traumatic Brain Injury Research, and Ekaterina Dobryakova, PhD, research scientist, also in the Center for Traumatic Brain Injury Research.

These scientists have a special interest in this topic, as the authors of an opinion piece in the International Journal of Psychophysiology published prior to the pandemic.  In “Considerations of power and sample size in rehabilitation research”, they detailed the scientific challenges of rehabilitation research, and saw opportunities for these challenges to drive innovation in machine learning and telemedicine.  In their recently recorded podcast, the team regroups to discuss how the pandemic is affecting ongoing studies, and how necessary adaptations promise to transform the future of research.

Dr. Boukrina outlines the life cycle of the typical rehabilitation research project conducted at Kessler Foundation. Some studies allow participation via phone or computer, for example the state-funded medication management study for traumatic brain injury, and the longitudinal data collection done by the federally funded Traumatic Brain Injury Model System and Spinal Cord Injury Model System. The majority of clinical studies, however, involve direct contact with study participants. These have felt the impact of the sudden and dramatic changes imposed by the measures required to contain the spread of COVID-19. 

Despite the current need to shelter in place, stakeholders are coming together to maintain the momentum of rehabilitation research. Research studies that rely on phone and computer contact are still underway. Dr. Kucukboyaci explains that while in-person data collection has paused, other research activities continue - analyzing data, preparing publications, communicating with funders, and maintaining IRB approvals. Where possible, the Foundation’s IRB has prioritized and expedited the review of documents that allow some in-person activities to be done remotely.

Planning for the resumption of studies means re-budgeting, extending study timelines, and keeping in contact with study participants. Those whose appointments were canceled received gift cards, a gesture that was well received, according to Dr. Kucukboyaci, and the research staff routinely checks in with participants. Researchers are also working with funding agencies on deadline extensions for ongoing research, as well as for new grant applications. Some funders have approved across –the-board no-cost extensions and temporary salary support; others are deciding on a case-by-case basis.

There are lessons to be learned from this experience, adds Dr. Dobryakova, and some may fundamentally change our approach to rehabilitation research. Now that telemedicine is being adopted widely, we are likely to see a shift toward telerehabilitation, with more studies designed for remote data collection. New research is needed to make this shift with cognitive research, cautions Dr. Dobryakova. To transition to administering cognitive measures remotely will require collecting a large amount of normative data to establish validity and reproducibility. Ways of sharing new findings will change also, as scientists turn to online resources for collaboration, and participate in virtual conferences.

These are some of the ways researchers are applying creative solutions to move forward under the necessary limitations of sheltering in place.