Utilizing online learning to manage health

When it comes to chronic diseases like diabetes, the key to warding off complications lies in the daily management of the illness – that's why education is so important.

But a face-to-face meeting with a nurse educator isn't the only way to learn self-management techniques. A research study by Faculty of Management professor Dr. Helen Kelley and her research collaborators, Dr. Mike Chiasson (Lancaster University) and Dr. Angela Downey (University of Victoria), is revealing that e-health technologies – when used strategically – can boost health outcomes in the ever-growing population of people with Type II diabetes.

"As incidents increase, there's definitely a cost to our health-care system. Given concerns with the cost of healthcare, how do we provide the education that's needed so people develop good self-care management practices?" she asks.

Kelley and her colleagues led a 12-month, longitudinal study involving three groups of newly diagnosed diabetes patients from the former Chinook Health Region, who were given different combinations of learning tools. The first group of patients had face-to-face meetings with clinicians, as well as Internet access for independent searches for information. The second group was given electronic versions of educational material developed for the Chinook Health Region, e-messaging for communicating with clinicians and an electronic blood glucose journal, but no face-to-face coaching. Like the second group, the third had access to educational materials, e-messaging for communicating with clinicians and the journal, but also a list of educational websites, bulletin boards for posing questions to clinicians and chat rooms for speaking with other newly diagnosed diabetics and clinicians.

The study, which wrapped up in December, monitored a special biomedical indicator in the patients' blood (hemoglobin A1c) in order to determine whether the use of the various electronic features for education was having positive health outcomes. Early analysis shows that the third group made the biggest health gains.

"Early results from our study suggest that if you're mindful of the type of technology you develop, you can get very positive results – as good as face-to-face outcomes and perhaps even better," Kelley says.

However, the key is using technology strategically.

"You can't just slap materials on a website and say, 'Here you go – go ahead and manage your disease.' It's much more involved than that."