There has been relatively little research on the role of web-based support for self-care in the management of minor, acute symptoms, in contrast to the wealth of recent research into Internet interventions to support self-management of long-term conditions.
This study was designed as an evaluation of the usage and effects of the "Internet Doctor" website providing tailored advice on self-management of minor respiratory symptoms (eg, cough, sore throat, fever, runny nose), in preparation for a definitive trial of clinical effectiveness. The first aim was to evaluate the effects of using the Internet Doctor webpages on patient enablement and use of health services, to test whether the tailored, theory-based advice provided by the Internet Doctor was superior to providing a static webpage providing the best existing patient information (the control condition). The second aim was to gain an understanding of the processes that might mediate any change in intentions to consult the doctor, by comparing changes in relevant beliefs and illness perceptions in the intervention and control groups, and by analyzing usage of the Internet Doctor webpages and predictors of intention change.
Participants (N = 714) completed baseline measures of beliefs about their symptoms and self-care online, and were then automatically randomized to the Internet Doctor or control group. These measures were completed again by 332 participants after 48 hours. Four weeks later, 214 participants completed measures of enablement and health service use.
The Internet Doctor resulted in higher levels of satisfaction than the control information (mean 6.58 and 5.86, respectively; P = .002) and resulted in higher levels of enablement a month later (median 3 and 2, respectively; P = .03). Understanding of illness improved in the 48 hours following use of the Internet Doctor webpages, whereas it did not improve in the control group (mean change from baseline 0.21 and -0.06, respectively, P = .05). Decline in intentions to consult the doctor between baseline and follow-up was predicted by age (beta = .10, P= .003), believing before accessing the website that consultation was necessary for recovery (beta = .19, P < .001), poor understanding of illness (beta = .11, P = .004), emotional reactions to illness (beta = .15, P <.001), and use of the Diagnostic section of the Internet Doctor website (beta = .09, P = .007).
Our findings provide initial evidence that tailored web-based advice could help patients self-manage minor symptoms to a greater extent. These findings constitute a sound foundation and rationale for future research. In particular, our study provides the evidence required to justify carrying out much larger trials in representative population samples comparing tailored web-based advice with routine care, to obtain a definitive evaluation of the impact on self-management and health service use.