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Study shows most effective ways for cancer patients to learn online

Bret Shaw

Bret Shaw (large image)

Breast cancer patients who use online information services in combination with computer support groups and other interactive services are the most likely to feel they have the information they need to cope with their illness according to new research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center of Excellence in Cancer Communication Research.

“Previous research indicated that women with breast cancer can learn as a result of having access to online health education resources, but this is among the first studies to explain how such learning actually occurs,” says Bret Shaw, PhD., lead author of the study.

To examine the most effective ways that cancer patients learn online, the researchers provided free computers and Internet access to 286 lower income women recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Participants were also provided access to an integrated computer-based health education and support system called the Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System (CHESS) “Living with Breast Cancer” program offering four distinct types of services. The first type was information services — static Web pages containing a broad range of breast cancer-related information. The system also offered support groups enabling peer-to-peer communication and an expert service allowing patients to ask a question and receive a response within 48 hours. The other service type was interactive in which the computer played an active role in guiding the user, making suggestions, offering feedback and influencing the user's behavior. A browser automatically collected use data on an individual key stoke level as participants used the system, allowing the researchers to measure what types of services were used. Additionally, women were also surveyed before the study began and four months after receiving the system to determine how certain patterns of use behavior contributed to improved learning outcomes.

The analysis revealed that greater use of information services and interactive services both independently predicted improved learning outcomes. Additionally, women who used information services in combination with the online support groups or interactive services obtained greater benefits than women who primarily depended on the information services alone. Surprisingly, interacting with an online expert did not contribute to learning outcomes either independently or in combination with using the information services.

“The results of this study suggest that cancer patients should seek out trusted information and interactive services on the Internet, and they may obtain additional benefits if they also use online support groups as well,” says Shaw.

The results are published as an advance issue of the journal Health Education Research.

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7/19/2006