Social media tools may reduce attrition in online health programs

Social media tools may prove an effective way to boost participation in online health programs, according to researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School.

Caroline Richardson, MD, associate professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, and her colleagues found that adding an interactive online community to an Internet-based walking program significantly decreased the number of participants who dropped out.

Program results showed that 79 percent of participants who used online forums to motivate each other stuck with the 16-week program. Only 66 percent of those who used a version of the site without the social components completed the program. Still, both groups saw equal improvements in how much they walked while using the program's Web interface to track their progress – about a mile per day.

The findings, scheduled to be published this month in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, show that adding community features to online health programs can be a powerful tool for reducing attrition, says Richardson, the study's lead author. The approach also has the potential to produce significant savings compared to traditional interventions, such as face-to-face coaching, which are expensive to do on a large scale.

"Brick by brick we have been building a model of how to change health behaviors using online tools," Richardson says. "We can see that social components can help to mitigate the big downside that Internet-mediated programs have had in the past, namely attrition."

For health programs with a national or international scope, even small reductions in attrition could lead to positive health outcomes for large numbers of people and significant system-wide cost savings, said researchers.

While one-on-one interventions can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, the Wed-based approach has the potential to deliver similar results at a much lower cost. The pedometers used in Richardson's program cost $34 each. A website like the one they used is somewhat expensive to set up, but becomes cheaper on a per-person basis over time and as the size of the program increases. Plus, much of the content is provided for free by participants as they share tips and encouragement.

"There's already a huge demand for change that we're not meeting in the health system," Richardson says. "There are people who know what they want – help losing weight, sleeping through the night, improving their diet – but they don't have guidance. They don't have the necessary behavioral skills or support that will allow them to be successful. That's where these types of programs fit in."

As social media networks become even more integrated into the fabric of American life, researchers predict there will be additional opportunities to harness their power, encouraging participation and disseminating information at a low cost by piggybacking on that existing infrastructure.

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