Phase 1 pilot study of e-mail support for people with long term conditions using the Internet.
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BACKGROUND: Use of the Internet for people with Long Term Conditions (LTCs) can have a positive effect on knowledge, social support, behavioural and clinical outcomes, yet there is concern that a 'digital divide' prevents some patients from benefitting. While some patients do not have access to the Internet, others that do may still lack expertise or the confidence to make full use of it. The aim of this pilot study was to develop an intervention and test methods for a definitive randomised controlled trial (RCT) of anonymous personal online email support for patients in this latter group. METHODS: Recruitment success was evaluated by the number and appropriateness of participants recruited. A personalised e-health support intervention was developed. The provisional primary outcome was the extent to which the Internet affected the participants' confidence in dealing with their LTC. Primary outcome, seven process measures and two secondary outcomes measures were evaluated for completeness of data and sensitivity to detect changes. RESULTS: Thirty nine participants were recruited, 29 after personally receiving a leaflet, seven via email advertising, and three via leaflets left in waiting areas. Most participants (61%) were aged over 60. The majority (21/38) rated themselves as experienced Internet users although only 5/38 had used discussion forums for their LTC. Piloting the intervention identified support needed as: (i) technical help with some websites, (ii) advice about issues such as anonymity, (iii) help in judging information quality, (iv) identification of relevant information (via 'Information Prescriptions'), (v) motivational support to try new sites. Attrition was fairly high: 20/39 completed follow up questionnaires. Three process measures showed ceiling effects and two had too many missing values to be useable. CONCLUSION: E-health support is a promising way of addressing the problems faced by older generation e-health seekers. Face-to-face leaflet distribution recruited sufficient numbers but additional locations other than hospital should be tried to recruit Internet novices with LTCs. An RCT is feasible and necessary to evaluate the potential benefits of anonymous email support. Our methods could be used by other researchers studying Internet use by people with LTCs.
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