In spring 2020, as it became obvious that COVID-19 wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, the leaders of the Rheumatology Research Foundation implemented an expedited process to distribute research funding beyond its typical awards program. This resulted in the Foundation awarding $1.65 million to fund five research studies that will look at the relationships between rheumatic diseases and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as the pandemic’s effect on healthcare delivery.
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“This was a great team effort among Foundation leadership, staff and stakeholders,” says Foundation President S. Louis Bridges Jr., MD, PhD. “When we saw the need for funding to address COVID-19 in patients with rheumatologic conditions, we quickly identified areas of research focus that would be most impactful.”
The five projects chosen for funding will investigate various facets of the intersection between COVID-19 and rheumatology, including the use of telehealth, patient outcomes and health-related quality of life after COVID-19 infection, and the link between outcomes and immune response. The intention is to ultimately improve care for patients with rheumatic disease who are affected by COVID-19.
Two grants were awarded to study telehealth in rheumatology, including how it is used, how it affects patient care and what it might be used for in the future.
Maria Danila, MD, MSc, MSPH, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, will conduct a multi-site, randomized, noninferiority, controlled clinical trial to compare telehealth with in-office rheumatology related to patient satisfaction and patient preference. Dr. Danila received an Innovative Research Award for her study, Effectiveness of Telerheumatology for Delivering High-Quality Rheumatology Care During the COVID-19 Crisis.
The idea for this research, she says, resulted from the exponential increase in the use of telehealth during the pandemic and the questions this raised regarding its efficacy and satisfaction. Another question is whether telehealth could remain an appropriate method of care after the pandemic.
“We hope that our findings will be useful in shaping rheumatology practice in the future and that patients, clinicians and policymakers will be able to use the results to inform their decisions about telerheumatology practice,” Dr. Danila says.
Swamy Venuturupalli, MD, FACR, has similar hopes for his study, Telehealth-delivered HealthcaRe to ImproVE Care (THRIVE) in Community-Practice Rheumatology, for which he received the Norman B. Gaylis, MD, Clinical Research Award.
As a community rheumatologist at Attune Health, Beverly Hills, Calif., Dr. Venuturupalli had to adjust quickly to COVID-19 to keep his patients, staff and himself safe. Not only did this require changing how he was seeing patients—on screen instead of face to face—but it changed the questions he needed to ask and how he conducted examinations. This led Dr. Venuturupalli to wonder whether telehealth is effective for patients, whether it could create a way to improve patient care and, assuming telehealth is still a thing post-pandemic, what it might look like in the future.
To answer these questions, Dr. Venuturupalli and his team, which includes experts in outcomes measures and patient communication, have two aims in mind. First, the team wants to create a practical guidance document for patients and physicians that outlines best practices for telehealth, which they’ll do based on the results of a systematic literature review. Then, the team intends to demonstrate how telehealth compares to in-person medicine for measuring disease state and achieving positive patient outcomes. This will involve a patient study.