Rationale for a Clinical Trial That Compares Acute Stroke Rehabilitation at Inpatient Rehabilitation Facilities to Skilled Nursing Facilities: Challenges and Opportunities

Published:August 31, 2021DOI:


      In the United States, approximately 400,000 patients with acute stroke are discharged annually to inpatient rehabilitation facilities (IRFs) or skilled nursing facilities (SNFs). Typically, IRFs provide time-intensive therapy for an average of 2-3 weeks, whereas SNFs provide more moderately intensive therapy for 4-5 weeks. The factors that influence discharge to an IRF or SNF are multifactorial and poorly understood. The complexity of these factors in combination with subjective clinical indications contributes to large variations in the use of IRFs and SNFs. This has significant financial implications for health care expenditure, given that stroke rehabilitation at IRFs costs approximately double that at SNFs. To control health care spending without compromising outcomes, the Institute of Medicine has stated that policy reforms that promote more efficient use of IRFs and SNFs are critically needed. A major barrier to the formulation of such policies is the highly variable and low-quality evidence for the comparative effectiveness of IRF- vs SNF-based stroke rehabilitation. The current evidence is limited by the inability of observational data to control for residual confounding, which contributes to substantial uncertainty around any magnitude of benefit for IRF- vs SNF-based care. Furthermore, it is unclear which specific patients would receive the most benefit from each setting. A randomized controlled trial addresses these issues, because random treatment allocation facilitates an equitable distribution of measured and unmeasured confounders. We discuss several measurement, practical, and ethical issues of a trial and provide our rationale for design suggestions that overcome some of these issues.


      List of abbreviations:

      AM-PAC (Activity Measure for Post-Acute Care), HTE (heterogeneity of treatment effect), IRF (inpatient rehabilitation facility), IV (instrumental variable), LTFU (loss to follow-up), MedPAC (Medicare Payment Advisory Commission), PAC (postacute care), RCT (randomized controlled trial), SIS-16 (Stroke Impact Scale 16), SNF (skilled nursing facility)
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