|Peter G. Levine|
Stronger after Stroke
There you sit, face to face with a stroke survivor. Only a few days ago he was a vibrant, energetic community member... employee... family member and now is sitting in front of you…. aphasic… hemiparetic …scared. The family sits anxiously behind him. They’re eager to get their loved one back and now they look to you. “When?” they ask. “How?” they inquire. And make no mistake, no matter who has talked to them before and no matter how blunt other health professionals have been, they hold hope for full recovery. Between their expectations and their slowly materializing nightmares, you are the last line of defense.
This is not a good time to ask, “Are my skills up to this?”
What if you simply want to do what is the best neurological therapy available? What if you want to treat based on the best available scientific evidence. What if you don't want to be influenced by the wide variety of competing schools of neurorehabilitation, each with their own books and seminars and cult of personality leaders?
Want to scrape all the BS away? Go here: meta-analysis.
A meta-analysis is simply a study of studies. Researchers take all the available pertinent studies and then determine which studies are worthy of inclusion based on a variety of criterion. Then, of the studies that make the cut, each is given a certain weight depending on the number of participants (more is generally better), if they are blinded, the quality of outcome measures, and so on. All the available data is run through an algorithm and voila! Meta-analyses provide a “box score”. Simplified, it will look like this:
Therapy “XYZ” = -8.5Therapy “ABC” looks best, doesn’t it? Are you using “ABC”?
Therapy “123” = 9.3
Therapy “EFG” = 7.2
Therapy “ABC” = 27.6
But trust in meta-analyses assumes trust in the scientific method. Phrases like evidence based and best practice are contingent on an inherent belief in the scientific method as related to rehabilitation research.
(There is actually a remarkable amount of resistance to the scientific method, not just in rehabilitation but everywhere... deniers of global warming, human existence in the current form for the last quarter million years, evolution, a man on the moon, etc. etc. I was find it interesting that folks that are willing to deny science embrace it wholeheartedly if they are diagnosed with cancer. Oncology; based in science.)
Rehabilitation clinicians, in all their forms, graduate from colleges and colleges within universities that are usually called something like "College of allied health science."
With regard to rehabilitation research for stroke, what exactly is involved in the scientific method? How do medical and research doctors come to conclusions about what does and does not work?
As with many things medical, it started with Hippocrates. Hippocrates was the first to describe stroke, transient ischemic attacks and aphasia. Hippocrates, however, provided no clues on how to rehab stroke survivors and for more than 2400 years little was written and we know of few interventions used to facilitate recovery from stroke.
Fast-forward to the period from the early 1950’s until the early 1980’s. Individual therapists armed with “keen observational skills”, pencil, paper and a goniometer published their observations and claimed it an effective therapeutic intervention. During this period, therapists could reasonably say, “I know it works because I’ve seen it work in my patients.” or “There are no better alternatives”. Now, anyone armed with the power of meta-analysis can refute these claims with a simple statement.
Research and medical doctors have used cutting edge diagnostics including kinematics, electromyography, brain imaging, and the most reliable and valid outcome measures to completely reshape the world of stroke rehabilitation. In fact, it’s not a world at all. It’s an expanding universe.
And why is stroke rehabilitation it expanding so rapidly? A basic understanding of the sheer enormity of dollars provides some insight.
- $52 billion is spent on stroke care each year.
- The projected costs for stroke for the next 45 years: $2 Trillion.
- There are 50 million stroke survivors worldwide. (In a global economy.)
And make no mistake; entrepreneurs are marketing directly to stroke survivors. If you want insight into this process have a look at the advertisements in the two major free magazines for stroke survivors; the magazine of the National Stroke Association Stroke Smart and Stroke Connection magazine, published by the American Stroke Association.
And what of stroke survivors? Have they not always strived towards full recovery? Unfortunately, the history of stroke survivors is story of warehousing and lowered expectations. But don’t blink: things are changing fast. Baby boomer’s increased economic clout and heightened expectations intersecting with the mushrooming middle class in less developed countries has and will continue to create a new breed of stroke survivor who will want, need and expect more recovery.
And all this leads to more high quality stroke rehabilitation research.
Rapid technological change has led to ever more accurate determination of an intervention’s effectiveness and if effective, how effective. The force of a flood of dollars, both public and private, has changed the way stroke rehabilitation research is realized. Modern research often involves hundreds of specifically randomized participants and involves medical personnel (often including therapists) with degrees specific to their responsibilities within the study. Further, there are institutional review boards to guarantee ethical standards within the research trails, federal (FDA) oversight, and precise handling of collected data. Private, for profit companies, with and without the aid of public funding (NIH, NINDS, public and private universities) are spending hundreds of millions of dollars, on a variety of modalities and therapeutic interventions designed to ameliorate the residual aspects of stroke.
And all of that is only half the battle. In order for studies to be distributed in a manner that is respected by the medical community at large, it has to be published in peer-reviewed journals. Even once the study is done there is an expectation that the same or similar studies will follow that speak directly to reliability (the ability for an intervention to have the same or very similar results over and over.) Once a critical mass of research is done on a therapeutic intervention meta-analysis is done to, essentially, provide a numerical “score” that pits therapy against therapy and declares a winner.
This is not a good moment to ask, “Are my skills up to this?”
Unless they are.
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