Online support aids in treating depression

27 October 2020

Someone sitting with a computer in the lap (the head is not visible).

Half of the group were then randomly selected to receive access to online support, while the other half received standard care.

An online healthcare programme has proven to improve symptoms of depression in cancer patients. The programme was developed and tested by researchers at U-Care, a strategic research programme at Uppsala University.

Birgitta Johansson, associate professor at the
Department of Immunology, Genetics and
Pathology and Department of Women's and
Children's Health.

The researchers studied persons with breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer. A group of 909 individuals self-reported depression-related symptoms using a provided scale. Twenty-seven per cent proved to have symptoms of depression. Half of these were then randomly selected to receive access to online support, while the other half received standard care.

“The iCAN-DO model, which was developed by the researchers, is based on a stepwise approach,” says Birgitta Johansson, the researcher who led the study.

“In the first step, they receive access to an online resource where they can learn more about the disease, treatments, and self-care strategies. They can also pose questions to a nurse and write posts in a discussion group. In the second step, they gain access to an online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) module and have regular contact with a psychologist. This stepwise procedure is specific for our project. We have not previously seen this approach in online programmes.”

Reduced level of depression symptoms

Data from the group was collected before participants were randomly selected for the test group and control group, and again after four, seven, and 10 months. The results show that the iCAN-DO support programme reduced the severity of depression-related symptoms and to an overall reduction in the number of individuals experiencing symptoms of depression after 10 months, as compared with the control group. On the other hand, no significant effects on anxiety and post-traumatic stress were observed.

“The success can, in part, be explained by the fact that the programme was developed in collaboration with the target group. When we started designing the programme, we set up a reference group comprised of persons diagnosed with the illnesses covered. We discussed the programme with them, particularly step 1. The participants emphasised that they wanted it to be clear immediately at log-in to the programme that it was specifically tailored for cancer patients rather than individuals with general worries.”

Potential for improvement

The research team will continue evaluating progress made by individuals using the support programme to determine how it can be improved.

“There is a group that continues to experience symptoms of depression, and we have not managed to make an impact on the incidence of anxiety. For this reason, we see potential for further improvements to this type of support tool. In our next project, which focuses on relatives of individuals with cancer, we will concentrate more on adapting tools to suit the target group.”

Is that particularly important for online support?
“During the past 10–15 years, there has been a general increase in awareness that you need to try to include the target group when developing programmes. The computer skills of patient groups are another factor we have to consider when providing support through online programmes.”

Facts – U-care

U-CARE is a strategic research programme at Uppsala University. It was initiated by the Swedish government in 2010. Research focuses on the psychosocial effects on individuals afflicted by physical illness and on their relatives. It also highlights the types of assistance they require to be able to manage different types of complications and works to develop self-help programmes for managing these. The researchers are also developing and continually improving the U-CARE portal, an online platform through which makes it possible to provide psychosocial support and mental health treatment, and to study their effects.

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Last modified: 2022-12-22