Conference Coverage

Shared medical appointments educate and encourage MS patients



. – An innovative concept of shared medical appointments (SMA) for patients with multiple sclerosis (MS), in which a group of 10-15 patients meet for about 90 minutes of medical care and patient education, is showing benefits ranging from improved depression and social connections to reduced emergency room visits, according to a presentation at the Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis.

“At first, this may sound to patients like an awkward concept – they may say, ‘Why would I want to have a medical appointment with other people?’ ” Mary R. Rensel, MD, who is the director of the program at the Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis, Cleveland Clinic Foundation, said. “But once they get there, it’s wonderful to see what happens – patients start to encourage each other and share resources, and it’s enjoyable for the patients and providers alike,” she said.

The main objective of the shared appointments concept was to increase education regarding comorbidity prevention and management of MS, however, importantly, if patients wish to discuss any issues privately, they are accommodated. In addition, family members, children, and caregivers are all welcome to attend. “Caregivers need support as well, so their participation is welcome,” Dr. Rensel said.

A significant benefit of the program is the extended time with providers – an hour and a half – which is a substantially longer period than patients and providers typically spend together, Dr. Rensel noted. “Medical visits are often so rushed, but this gives us much more time together, to learn more and talk about things like brain health,” she said.

With guidance from a multidisciplinary team including nurses, wellness providers, psychologists, and other experts, there are currently seven meeting themes that are rotated through the year, focusing on a variety of subjects. One, for instance, includes education from a nutritionist, and the center includes a kitchen for the group to learn about and try recipes. Other sessions include chair yoga, art therapy, guided imagery, and exercise physiology.

The Cleveland Clinic is a leader in the concept of SMA and offers it to as many as 360 disease states. With the pilot program now underway for more than 3 years, Dr. Rensel and her team conducted a study to investigate its effects.

For the study, the authors collected clinical data on 50 patients who had attended at least one session between January 2016 and June 2019. Among the patients, 94% were female, 80% had relapsing-remitting MS, and mean age was 50. Patients had a mean Determined Disease Steps (PDSS) score of 3.1 plus or minus 2.4 and the average 25-foot walk and nine-hole peg test (dominant hand) times were 9.4 plus or minus 7.8 seconds and 25.8 plus or minus 9.1 seconds, respectively.

The most common comorbidity was depression/anxiety, occurring in 44% of patients, however after participation in the shared medical appointment program, their mean Patient Health Questionnaire-9 scores, with higher scores indicative of worse depression, decreased from pretreatment scores of 7.3 plus or minus 5.5 to posttreatment scores of 5.1 plus or minus 5.6 (P = .001).

Notably, the program appears to have had a positive effect on patients’ use of health care services – while there was a significant decrease in the mean number of emergency room visits (n = 13 to n = 2; P = .0005), the results showed a favorable increase in mean number of follow-up visits with attendees’ primary care providers (n = 19 to n = 41; P = 3.47), physical therapists (n = 15 to n = 27; P = .004), or psychologists (n = 6 to n = 19; P = .003).

“The study was to evaluate the effect of the program after even just one appointment, and we found it really seemed to increase the use of more appropriate care, with less ER utilization and more visits to primary care,” Dr. Rensel said. The study even showed a small but significant reduction in pre- and postoutcome body mass index (BMI, 30.2 plus or minus 7.3 vs. 28.8 plus or minus 7.1; P = .03).

A critical metric that was not measured in the study – the effect of social interaction and camaraderie in a condition that can, for many, feel socially isolating – is clearly profound, Dr. Rensel said.

Amar Dhand, MD, associate professor of neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard University, Boston, agreed that the peer support in such medical group settings can be highly valuable.

“Shared medical appointments offer an opportunity for peer-to-peer engagement, support, and education,” he said in an interview. “For many patients, this is a chance to bond with persons who are coexperiencing similar problems, allowing new social connections to emerge.”

Dr. Dhand, who spoke on the issue of the importance of social networks at the meeting, noted that, although there are numerous benefits with shared medical appointments, not all patients may respond well.

“Health care settings are one place to stimulate community among peers. This is one important ingredient of addressing social isolation,” he said. “However, there remain challenges such as sustainability of such relationships, paradoxical depression when persons see others with more severe disease, and infrastructure to support such programs.”

The findings from the study, however, do suggest favorable responses, he noted.

“I think, mechanistically, improved psychosocial outcomes are the most pertinent to the intervention,” Dr. Dhand said. “The health care utilization may be attributed to other factors and will need to be assessed in a case control design.”

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