Feasibility and Preliminary Effects of a Virtual Environment for Adults With Type 2 Diabetes: Pilot Study

JMIR research protocols 04/2014; 3(2):e23. DOI: 10.2196/resprot.3045
Source: PubMed


Innovative interventions that empower patients in diabetes self-management (DSM) are needed to provide accessible, sustainable, cost-effective patient education and support that surpass current noninteractive interventions. Skills acquired in digital virtual environments (VEs) affect behaviors in the physical world. Some VEs are programmed as real-time three-dimensional representations of various settings via the Internet. For this research, a theoretically grounded VE that facilitates DSM was developed and pilot tested. It offered weekly synchronous DSM education classes, group meetings, and social networking in a community in which participants practiced real world skills such as grocery shopping, exercising, and dining out, allowing for interactive knowledge application. The VE was available 24/7 on the Internet, minimizing access barriers.
The objective of this study was to evaluate the feasibility and efficacy of participation in a VE for DSM education and support.
This study utilized a single group, pre-mid-post measure design. At 0, 3, and 6 months, we assessed participants' perceived VE usability and usefulness, self-efficacy, diabetes self-management behaviors, perceived social support, and diabetes knowledge using validated survey measures; and we recorded metabolic indicators (HbA1c, BP, BMI). Process data were continuously collected in the VE (log-ins, voice recordings, locations visited, objects interacted with, and movement). Data analysis included descriptive statistics, t tests to evaluate changes in mediators and outcomes over time, and depiction of utilization and movement data.
We enrolled 20 participants (13/20, 65% white, 7/20, 35% black), with an age range of 39-72 years (mean age, 54 years) and diabetes duration from 3 months to 25 years. At baseline, 95% (18/19) and 79% (15/19) of participants rated usefulness and ease of use as high on validated surveys with no significant changes at 3 or 6 months. Participants logged into the site a mean of 2.5 hours/week over the course of 6 months. High DSM class attendance was reflected by the largest percentage of time spent in the classroom (48.6%). Self-efficacy, social support, and foot care showed significant improvement (P<.05). There were improvement trends in clinical outcomes that were clinically meaningful but did not reach statistical significance given the small sample size.
Because relatively little is known about usability, acceptability, and efficacy of health interventions in VEs, this study constitutes an important, innovative first step in exploring the potential of VEs for facilitating DSM. The preliminary data suggest that VEs provide a feasible and useful platform for patients and educators that affects self-management and related mediators. Flexible access to both synchronous and asynchronous diabetes education, skill building activities, and support from a home computer remove barriers to attending clinic-based meetings. This program has potential for improving DSM in an easily disseminated alternative model.

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    ABSTRACT: Diabetes is a serious worldwide public health challenge. The burden of diabetes, including prevalence and risk of complications, is greater for minorities, particularly African Americans. Internet-based immersive virtual worlds offer a unique opportunity to reach large and diverse populations with diabetes for self-management education and support. The objective of the study was to examine the acceptability, usage, and preliminary outcome of a virtual world intervention, Diabetes Island, in low-income African Americans with type 2 diabetes. The main hypotheses were that the intervention would: (1) be perceived as acceptable and useful; and (2) improve diabetes self-care (eg, behaviors and barriers) and self-care related outcomes, including glycemic control (A1C), body mass index (BMI), and psychosocial factors (ie, empowerment and distress) over six months. The evaluation of the intervention impact used a single-group repeated measures design, including three assessment time points: (1) baseline, (2) 3 month (mid intervention), and (3) 6 month (immediate post intervention). Participants were recruited from a university primary care clinic. A total of 41 participants enrolled in the 6 month intervention study. The intervention components included: (1) a study website for communication, feedback, and tracking; and (2) access to an immersive virtual world (Diabetes Island) through Second Life, where a variety of diabetes self-care education activities and resources were available. Outcome measures included A1C, BMI, self-care behaviors, barriers to adherence, eating habits, empowerment, and distress. In addition, acceptability and usage were examined. A series of mixed-effects analyses, with time as a single repeated measures factor, were performed to examine preliminary outcomes. The intervention study sample (N=41) characteristics were: (1) mean age of 55 years, (2) 71% (29/41) female, (3) 100% (41/41) African American, and (4) 76% (31/41) reported annual incomes below US $20,000. Significant changes over time in the expected direction were observed for BMI (P<.02); diabetes-related distress (P<.02); global (P<.01) and dietary (P<.01) environmental barriers to self-care; one physical activity subscale (P<.04); and one dietary intake (P<.01) subscale. The participant feedback regarding the intervention (eg, ease of use, interest, and perceived impact) was consistently positive. The usage patterns showed that the majority of participants logged in regularly during the first two months, and around half logged in each week on average across the six month period. This study demonstrated promising initial results of an immersive virtual world approach to reaching underserved individuals with diabetes to deliver diabetes self-management education. This intervention model and method show promise and could be tailored for other populations. A large scale controlled trial is needed to further examine efficacy.
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