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Even in this information age of text messaging, Facebook, Twitter and Internet blogs, studies continually show that one of the most powerful means for communicating with patients and increasing rehab compliance utilizes a technological tool we’ve been familiar with for more than a century: the telephone.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, regular telephone calls to patients trying to create or change behaviors related to physical activity or diet – essentially the sorts of activities one might be prescribed by a medical doctor or a physical therapist – led to greater success rates.

“Given the epidemic of lifestyle-related chronic diseases, building the evidence base for physical activity and dietary behavior change interventions with a wide population reach is of critical importance,” the study reported. “There is now a solid evidence base supporting the efficacy of physical activity and dietary behavior change interventions in which the telephone is the primary intervention method.”

So what are the applications? A quick Google search for “telephone intervention” leads one to a number of studies that boast rates of success that span from “luck warm” to “extraordinary.” Researchers have analyzed the effects of telephone intervention on everything from medication compliance to following a proper at-home rehabilitation plan.

One study published in the journal “Arthritis & Rheumatism” reported that “monthly telephone contact by lay personnel, to promote self-care for patients with osteoarthritis (OA), was associated with improved joint pain and physical function after one year of follow-up.”

In another such study, researchers from The Miriam Hospital analyzed the effects that telephone counseling had on a group of patients’ adherence to an exercise program. The patients in this study had recently completed cardiac rehabilitation, a group that has traditional experience low rates of success in maintaining long-term exercise programs.

The findings were significant. After six months, people who had received regular telephone counseling and intervention were exercising an average of 32 minutes per week more than those in the control group. After a year, that average jumped to 80 minutes more per week.

“While patients benefit from taking part in a cardiac rehabilitation program, six months after discharge, only 30 to 60 percent of patients report regular exercise,” said Bernardine Pinto, Ph.D., a researcher at The Miriam Hospital and a professor at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, who led the study. “Our study shows that specific support for exercise is important if we want cardiac patients to stay active over the long term and can easily be delivered through telephone-based intervention.”

In the absence of such telephone support, Pinto added, the gains a cardiac patient makes through the first phases of cardiac rehabilitation may be lost over time.

“It was also very encouraging to find that even patients with lower levels of exercise at the time of cardiac rehab discharge were particularly helped by the telephone counseling,” Pinto said.

Based on these findings and others, the message is clear: patients, including physical therapy clients, respond amazingly well to regular positive encouragement – call it positive peer pressure, if you’d like – even when such encouragement arrives via telephone.