Email Discussion Groups May Improve Health

by Dan Roberts
April 2002
Researchers have shown that participation in an email discussion group may improve health status and lower health care utilization for persons with recurrent back pain. This is the first study of its kind which looked at Internet support in connection with health improvement, and it is this writer’s belief that it may hold implications for other chronic conditions, such as retinal degeneration.
The year-long study was conducted by teams from Stanford University School of Medicine and Department of Psychiatry, Stanford University Medical Center, Stanford, Calif; University of Washington, School of Medicine, Seattle; and Department of Physical Therapy, University of Missouri, Columbia. The results were published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (2002;162:792-796) under the authorship of Kate R. Lorig, DrPH; Diana D. Laurent, MPH; Richard A. Deyo, MD; Margaret E. Marnell, PhD; Marian A. Minor, PhD; and Philip L. Ritter, PhD, and titled “Can a Back Pain E-mail Discussion Group Improve Health Status and Lower Health Care Costs?–A Randomized Study.”
580 people with chronic back pain participated, with intervention for the treatment group consisting of three parts: 1) a closed e-mail discussion group in which all group members received all e-mails sent by group members, moderators, and content experts; 2) a copy of The Back Pain Helpbook; and 3) a videotape that modeled how to continue an active life with back pain.
The results suggest that “a combination of information and support largely offered through an Internet discussion group improves health status and health care utilization for up to one year.” As for why this might be occuring, the authors speculate that “baseline self-efficacy, as well as changes in self-efficacy, may be important contributors to the positive health status outcomes.”
The report concluded with, “In the future, we will learn much more about the potential and limitations of this new media for delivering health care interventions.” Based upon this writer’s empirical observation of seven years involvement with the Internet low-vision community, it is not unreasonable to expect the same kinds of results in that health area, as well.

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