Crossing the Digital Divide in Online Self-Management Support: Analysis of Usage Data From HeLP-Diabetes
Shoba Poduval, Saddif Ahmed, Louise Marston, Fiona Hamilton, Elizabeth Murray
Background: Digital health is increasingly recognized as a cost-effective means to support patient self-care. However, there are concerns about whether the “digital divide,” defined as the gap between those who do and do not make regular use of digital technologies, will lead to increased health inequalities. Access to the internet, computer literacy, motivation to use digital health interventions, and fears about internet security are barriers to use of digital health interventions. Some of these barriers disproportionately affect people of older age, black or minority ethnic background, and low socioeconomic status. HeLP-Diabetes (Healthy Living for People with type 2 Diabetes), a theoretically informed online self-management program for adults with type 2 diabetes, was developed to meet the needs of people from a broad demographic background. Objective: This study aimed to determine whether there was evidence of a digital divide when HeLP-Diabetes was integrated into routine care. This was achieved by (1) comparing the characteristics of people who registered for the program against the target population (people with type 2 diabetes in inner London), (2) comparing the characteristics of people who registered for the program and used it with those who did not use it, and (3) comparing sections of the website visited by different demographic groups. Methods: A retrospective analysis of data on the use of HeLP-Diabetes in routine clinical practice in 4 inner London clinical commissioning groups was undertaken. Data were collected from patients who registered for the program as part of routine health services.. Data on gender, age, ethnicity, and educational attainment were collected at registration, and data on webpage visits (user identification number, date, time, and page visited) were collected automatically by software on the server side of the website. Results: The characteristics of people who registered for the program were found to reflect those of the target population. The mean age was 58.4 years (SD=28.0), over 50.0% were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and nearly a third (29.8%) had no qualifications beyond school leaving age. There was no association between demographic characteristics and use of the program, apart from weak evidence of less use by the mixed ethnicity group. There was no evidence of the differential use of the program by any demographic group, apart from weak evidence for people with degrees and school leavers being more likely to use the “Living and working with diabetes” (P=.03) and “Treating diabetes” (P=.04) sections of the website. Conclusions: This study is one of the first to provide evidence that a digital health intervention can be integrated into routine health services without widening health inequalities. The relative success of the intervention may be attributed to integration into routine health care, and careful design with extensive user input and consideration of literacy levels. Developers of digital health interventions need to acknowledge barriers to access and use, and collect data on the demographic profile of users, to address inequalities.