Atlanta, GA,
08:43 AM

Virtual Connections Fill Gaps in Patient and Family Care

Shepherd Center innovates virtual options to effectively treat patients and support families.

The proverb, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” has always been a guiding force at Shepherd Center, but especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Providing consistent care is critical to our patients’ rehabilitation,” says Sarah Morrison, PT, MBA, MHA, president and CEO of Shepherd Center. “COVID-19 forced us to innovate quickly and find a way to continue that care virtually where it was needed.”

Within three weeks of the pandemic’s start, every Shepherd Center department contributed to making virtual services possible. Telehealth, online wellness clinics and other virtual services are now a regular part of the hospital’s operations and have broader applications. For example, people who don’t live near the hospital can now participate in programs they previously could not access.

Shepherd Center’s peer support program, which connects injured individuals and their families with mentors, also offers virtual platforms. It has been so successful that the acquired brain injury (ABI) family peer support groups have seen a 32% increase in meeting attendance.

“Instead of having to miss a peer support dinner or one-on-one support session because they are out of state or it’s inconvenient, they can tune in from anywhere,” says Claire Holley, acquired brain injury family peer support coordinator.

The spinal cord injury (SCI) peer support groups have had another unexpected benefit: patients can now get a glimpse into the lives of their mentors in their home environments through virtual sessions. This allows them to see how their mentors live day-to-day, which ultimately boosts their confidence to manage life when they return home.

To help navigate their loved one’s injury, families of inpatients with a brain injury can participate in therapy. Shatavia Thomas, DMFT, LMFT, an ABI family therapist, launched telehealth services in March 2020. Since then, she has met with 34 families across the 10 states where she is licensed or has provisions during the state of emergency.

“Personally, it’s been a rewarding experience in my career to be part of this effort to adapt quickly to serve the needs of families,” Dr. Thomas says.

The Eula C. and Andrew C. Carlos Multiple Sclerosis Rehabilitation and Wellness Program aims to help patients slow disease progression and improve quality of life. In August 2020, it began offering its wellness program virtually, including 10 group exercise classes, yoga, Pilates, meditation, individual coaching sessions and social hours.

“Managing multiple sclerosis (MS) involves a combination of medical treatment, specific rehabilitation such as physical or speech therapy, and overall wellness,” says Anna Berry, PT, DPT, program manager of the MS Institute. “With the virtual wellness classes, we’ve been able to increase our class sizes and are looking to increase the number of classes we offer, as well.”

In the early days of the pandemic, Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program received an emergency grant from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation to provide a virtual solution to help people with spinal cord injuries stay physically active. They have trialed it in three cohorts.

The first cohort completed an eight-week trial core curriculum for seated yoga classes and upper-body strengthening classes in September 2020. The second cohort included a leisure skill art class, art and relaxation class, upper-body strengthening, and yoga. Due to high demand, a third cohort was added, incorporating an updated strengthening and cardio class called Shepherd Moves and a weekly theme that teaches a new area of wellness to participants.

“The cohorts have been going really well,” says Jenny Dilaura, MA, CCLS, CTRS, lead therapist in Shepherd Center’s health and wellness clinics. “Participants have even continued to exercise on their own with the videos we recorded over Zoom. I am excited to see how we can continue to develop this program.”

To prevent a gap in care for its clients, Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative, a comprehensive rehabilitation program for post-9/11 veterans and service members with brain injury, began offering telehealth in Georgia during July 2020 and has since become licensed in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Florida. The team is working to become licensed in other states, as well.

“The goal of the telehealth program is to help our clients develop sustainable activities of wellness,” says Jackie Breitenstein, MS, CTRS, CCM, the SHARE program manager. “We still offer our full spectrum of therapy including recreational therapy, virtual exercise groups and virtual peer support groups for clients who are currently in the program or clients who have graduated.”

With tenacity and ingenuity, Shepherd Center quickly launched a variety of virtual wellness and telehealth offerings.

“The foundation built since last March will allow the hospital to continue to evolve, even as we move past the pandemic,” Morrison says. “While virtual solutions may not always be the appropriate choice, having the resource as part of Shepherd Center’s comprehensive rehabilitation program helps elevate the patient and family experience.”


Written by Damjana Alverson

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.