What did we ever do without the internet?
No doubt you’ve heard, said or wondered that countless times in recent years. The internet has forever changed the way we learn and function in the world. More than 85% of Canadians have access to the internet (1), largely through home computers and/or other electronic devices, and use it to communicate, be entertained and get information on pretty much any topic. In a society where all we have to do is “Google it,” there’s no need to wonder long about anything!
That has exciting implications for healthcare. With rising costs, limited resources and other challenges facing our healthcare system, disease prevention through public education is vital. Computers and the internet offer cost effective ways to inform people about health issues and encourage behaviours that help prevent disease and promote good health.
Additional advantages of computer-delivered healthcare interventions are that they are available 24 hours a day, accessible to everyone (including those living in hard-to-reach locations) and can be tailored to individuals’ needs – which has been shown to greatly increase their effectiveness (2).
The question remains however, do they work? Are they effective in helping people change potentially harmful behaviours and take steps toward healthier lifestyles?
What the research tells us
A well-done analysis of 75 randomized controlled trials conducted over a 19-year period (3) sought to find out. More than 35,600 research participants (primarily adult women) completed one of several different types of computer-delivered information programs, most of them customized to their health needs and interests.
The studies showed that computer-delivered interventions are at least somewhat effective in improving health-related knowledge, attitudes and intentions. They also have a modest effect on altering behaviours (in areas including nutrition, tobacco and other substance use, binging/purging and safe sexual practices) to improve health.
While the results appear to be modest, from a public health perspective, they are meaningful at the population level (4) and support the continued development of high quality computer-delivered health information programs.
Additional high quality research also shows that mindfulness-based programs delivered online or through smartphones apps for 2 – 12 weeks, lead to moderate improvements in stress and small improvements in depression, anxiety, and well-being in adults (5).
If you enjoy spending time on the computer, you may be doing yourself some good – especially if you’re learning about how to ensure a long and healthy life.