New research to improve access to pulmonary rehabilitation for women with COPD

Women in Nova Scotia with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) will soon be able to breathe a little easier, thanks to new research by Dr. Carley O'Neill of Acadia’s School of Kinesiology. To fund the research, Research Nova Scotia has awarded Dr. O’Neill a New Health Investigator Grant of $100,000 over two years.

COPD, a leading cause of disability and death, is irreversible. Its symptoms include breathlessness, fatigue, and a low tolerance for exercise, all of which contribute to poor mental health and a lower quality of life.

Across Canada, rates of COPD are the highest in Nova Scotia. Although COPD appears to affect men and women equally in Canada, research shows that women are under-diagnosed and under-represented or completely excluded from pulmonary rehabilitation research.

Tackling barriers to women's health

“Exercise-based pulmonary rehabilitation programs have been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms, improving disease management and quality of life,” says Dr. O'Neill. “However, these programs have been developed based on empirical evidence from men and imposed onto women without consideration of their unique needs and preferences.”
As a result, women are less likely to enroll in and adhere to these rehabilitation programs. Barriers they face include lack of time, feeling under-represented, and time-consuming caregiving responsibilities.

A further barrier is the lack of pulmonary rehabilitation programs in rural communities across Nova Scotia. Of those available, many have been closed since the beginning of the pandemic, with no alternative virtual programs being offered. Patients in these areas have been left without support and guidance on how to exercise, which may have led to an increase in symptoms, poorer disease management, and a lower quality of life.

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Pulmonary rehabilitation program 2022


Improving quality of life

This situation is about to change. “Our research team – Dr. Sarah Koch (Barcelona Institute of Global Health), Dr. Jonathon Fowles (Acadia University), and Dr. Jeremy Road (University of British Columbia) – will implement a feasibility trial of women-specific virtual and in-person pulmonary rehabilitation programs among those with COPD in Nova Scotia,” says Dr. O’Neill.

The team will track recruitment and drop-out rates, as well as reasons for drop-out and adherence to the program. They will also assess symptom severity and quality of life at the beginning and end of the exercise-based pulmonary rehabilitation programs.

“Our international team of researchers will work directly with women with COPD within these programs. Their feedback will be instrumental in expanding our understanding of the feasibility of these types of programming as we work to address the gross under-representation of women in this area of health research. The ultimate goal is to increase access to these programs for women with COPD across Nova Scotia, Canada, and beyond,” Dr. O’Neill says.


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