February 20, 2020

Bringing healing home with virtual cardiac rehabilitation

Michelle Wofford gets a new lease on life after a serious cardiac event.

An innovative program helps people with heart disease complete cardiac rehab from the comfort of home. This video was filmed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A fitness enthusiast since her 20s, Michelle Wofford rarely went more than a day or two without visiting the gym. When she began having mild chest pain during workouts, she chalked it up to a cold.

As time progressed, it became clear she was dealing with something more serious. “I'd walk upstairs and be out of breath. I couldn't even enjoy simple things that I like to do,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘I’m 42, I’m too young for this.’”

Wofford sought care at Kaiser Permanente, where doctors diagnosed a blockage in her coronary artery and placed a stent to restore blood flow to her heart. Days later, she was headed home to her son and husband, feeling a mixture of relief and fear.

“I really didn't know what to expect, and I remember telling my husband, ‘What if I eat the wrong thing and all of a sudden, I have this major heart attack?’” she said.

Home, but not alone

Thanks to Kaiser Permanente’s innovative virtual cardiac rehabilitation program, Wofford was home, but not alone — her care team came with her in the form of a wearable fitness tracker on her wrist.

“We’re able to monitor patients’ steps, monitor their heart rates, and all that information is being analyzed by our nurse case managers,” explained Chileshe Price, MD, Wofford’s cardiologist. “They reach out to the patients on a weekly basis and guide them through those critical steps after a cardiac event to bring them healing and recovery.”

Kaiser Permanente Member Michelle Wofford and Dr. Chileshe Price

Michelle Wofford and Dr. Chileshe Price.

The benefits of virtual cardiac rehabilitation

For patients with heart disease, lifestyle changes such as increasing physical activity and eating a healthy diet can reduce the risk of secondary cardiac events. Rehabilitation programs that encourage these behaviors are widely available, but few patients enroll in programs outside their homes, and even fewer complete them.

Kaiser Permanente began offering virtual cardiac rehabilitation in June 2019. The program has enrolled more than 2,300 patients, making it one of the largest programs in the U.S. More than 80% of patients who join the program complete it, compared to a national average of less than 50%. Cardiac-related hospital readmissions for patients in the program have been less than 2%, compared to 10% to 15% for most programs.  

Participants wear a smartwatch that sends them reminders to exercise, and their activity data is sent to their care team. During weekly phone calls with a nurse case manager, patients receive feedback on their progress and can ask questions and raise concerns.

For Wofford, the support she received from Dr. Price and case manager Azure Looney, RN, was key to her recovery.

“They gave me hope,” she said. “This extreme thing happened to me, and it's not the end for me. I can still live my life as I did before.”

Learn more about cardiac care at Kaiser Permanente.

The video in this article was filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic. Kaiser Permanente has since introduced new safety practices, including requiring all members, patients, and staff in our facilities to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.