Impact of COVID-19 on a Pragmatic, Cluster Randomized Clinical Trial for Fibromyalgia

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      Our objective was to present our experience on adapting to the challenges of COVID-19 pandemic on a pragmatic clinical trial. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) in Physical Therapy (PT) Study (FM-TIPS) is a pragmatic, cluster-randomized clinical trial examining if the addition of TENS to routine PT improves movement-evoked pain in fibromyalgia (FM). FM patients (n=600) were enrolled from 24 PT clinics (12 PT only, 12 PT with TENS) across five healthcare systems. COVID-19 has significantly impacted PT practice and in-person interactions. In response, all PT clinics saw reduced volumes of patients, some clinics furloughed PTs, and some clinics were permanently closed. This led us to put contracts, reliance agreements, and training of clinics on hold and to seek additional clinics that could fill the gap for those who could no longer participate. It also led to a delay in onboarding healthcare systems and inpatient enrollment. In order to protect the integrity of the study and minimize missing data due to potential restrictions of in-person visits we developed alternative strategies. This includes procedures for home instruction of TENS via telehealth, a plan for bringing on backup clinics, and a plan for training virtually and in-person using personal protective equipment and social distancing. Assessment of primary outcome and questionnaire data were transitioned for the patient to perform at home through a patient-portal with embedded patient-specific videos. We have also set up a phone line for patients to call with additional questions or concerns. The impact of COVID-19 on statistical design and analysis was discussed including a plan for uneven enrollment across clinics and a sub-analysis of data for patients enrolled during or after the pandemic. In conclusion, COVID-19 altered the original study design of this large-pragmatic trial to account for greater flexibility for providers and patients to facilitate continued enrollment. NIH.