The potential of peer support to extend the reach of digital health

Nanton, Veronica, Roscoe, Julia, Appleton, Rebecca, Clarke, Amy and Dale, Jeremy (2020) The potential of peer support to extend the reach of digital health. BMC Health Services Research. pp. 1-13. ISSN 1472-6963


Abstract Background Peer support groups have proliferated since the 1960s, providing safe, informal environments where peers can share experiences and information. A common model for the group is for those who have progressed further along a care pathway or in dealing with a particular medical condition or psycho-social problem, to encourage those at an earlier stage of recovery. Online support groups now co-exist with face to face models, providing a complementary or alternative resource for those with digital access and competence. As the paradigm of health care has moved towards the incorporation of health promotion, patient empowerment and self-management, peer support has extended to include more focussed activities. In particular peer support is included in a range of behaviour change interventions to promote engagement and adherence. Increasingly these interventions are delivered online. While this aims to extend their reach, it leaves those without digital access disadvantaged in terms of the ability to make use of online health resources.Main text Though peer support has been used to maintain adherence to online programmes, its potential in assisting with access and thus widening participation has remained unknown. We successfully piloted the use of a paid peer supporter to help men without experience of IT to take part in an online intervention involving a prostate specific holistic needs assessment. Lessons were learnt from this innovation in relation to training needs and support for the supporter and around data security, confidentiality and safeguarding. Alternative models of voluntary peer support maybe appropriate, particularly in the implementation phase of an intervention and require exploration. Additionally a specific framework for best practice in relation to Digital Health interventions is needed to guide future development of the role. Conclusion Health services are predicted to increasingly rely on digital technology over the next decade. Research into the impact of these seek to include participants representative of the entire population. Efforts must be made to include those who are currently underrepresented in research such as the elderly and other disadvantaged groups. Innovative research designs involving peer support in a research project may be valuable in addressing the current barriers to participation.

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