Experience of Robotic Exoskeleton Use at Four Spinal Cord Injury Model Systems Centers

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Abstract

Background and Purpose:

Refinement of robotic exoskeletons for overground walking is progressing rapidly. We describe clinicians' experiences, evaluations, and training strategies using robotic exoskeletons in spinal cord injury rehabilitation and wellness settings and describe clinicians' perceptions of exoskeleton benefits and risks and developments that would enhance utility.

Methods:

We convened focus groups at 4 spinal cord injury model system centers. A court reporter took verbatim notes and provided a transcript. Research staff used a thematic coding approach to summarize discussions.

Results:

Thirty clinicians participated in focus groups. They reported using exoskeletons primarily in outpatient and wellness settings; 1 center used exoskeletons during inpatient rehabilitation. A typical episode of outpatient exoskeleton therapy comprises 20 to 30 sessions and at least 2 staff members are involved in each session. Treatment focuses on standing, stepping, and gait training; therapists measure progress with standardized assessments. Beyond improved gait, participants attributed physiological, psychological, and social benefits to exoskeleton use. Potential risks included falls, skin irritation, and disappointed expectations. Participants identified enhancements that would be of value including greater durability and adjustability, lighter weight, 1-hand controls, ability to navigate stairs and uneven surfaces, and ability to balance without upper extremity support.

Discussion and Conclusions:

Each spinal cord injury model system center had shared and distinct practices in terms of how it integrates robotic exoskeletons into physical therapy services. There is currently little evidence to guide integration of exoskeletons into rehabilitation therapy services and a pressing need to generate evidence to guide practice and to inform patients' expectations as more devices enter the market.

Discussion and Conclusions:

Video Abstract available for more insights from the authors (see Video, Supplemental Digital Content 1, available at: http://links.lww.com/JNPT/A231).

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