How digital interventions support self-care of minor ailments: A process evaluation of the Internet Dr intervention for colds and flu

Sascha Accounts, Lucy Yardley, Peter Smith, Mark Weal, Alexander Milton, Beth Stuart, Paul Little, Leanne Morrison

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)


Background: Around 57 million doctor appointments annually in the UK are for minor ailments that could be self-cared for by patients. As well as taking up healthcare resources, patients experience increased anxiety, lowered confidence and inconvenience. The ‘Internet Dr’ is a digital intervention developed to support patients to self-care for respiratory tract infections. In a randomised controlled trial, patients with access to the intervention had fewer visits to their doctor for respiratory tract infections. Having established intervention efficacy, further examination of the data collected in the trial is required to understand how the intervention was successful. Objective: This paper reports a process evaluation of the ‘Internet Dr’ intervention. The evaluation identifies meaningful usage metrics (ie, types of interaction that are specific and relevant to the intervention). These metrics are used to examine which parts of the intervention are effective in supporting self-care for respiratory tract infections, who used them and at what time. Methods: The ‘Internet Dr’ trial recorded patients’ characteristics and usage data over 24 weeks. At follow-up users reported changes in their levels of enablement to cope with their illness over the trial period. An evaluation plan to examine this data was developed using Medical Research Council guidance and the framework for Analysing and Measuring Usage and Engagement Data. Results: Viewing pages containing advice on caring for respiratory tract infections was identified as a meaningful metric for measuring usage of the intervention. Almost half the users (n=616, 42.32%) viewed at least one advice page, with most people (n=478, 77.60%) accessing them when they initially enrolled in the study. Users who viewed an advice page (M=2.12) reported increased enablement to cope with their illness as a result of having participated in the study (MD =.469, 95% CI [.082, .856]), compared to users who did not view advice pages (M=1.65). Users who had visited their GP for a respiratory tract infection in the year prior to the trial were a target population, and analyses revealed that this group were more likely to access advice pages (Wald's x2=14.915, P=<.001). Conclusions: The process evaluation identifies viewing advice pages as associated to increased enablement to self-care, even when accessed in the absence of a respiratory tract infection, meaning that dissemination activities need not be restricted to targeting users who are ill. The intervention was also effective at reaching the target population of users who consulted their GP previously. However, attrition prior to advice pages was high, highlighting the necessity of prioritising access during the design phase. These findings provide guidance on how the intervention may be improved and disseminated, and have wider implications for minor ailment interventions. Clinical Trial: ISRCTN91518452
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Publication statusPublished - 14 Sept 2020

Bibliographical note

We would like to thank the Economic and Social Research Council for funding this paper (award: 1692136 – Understanding digital intervention engagement: Making sense of large-scale usage data). The Internet Dr development and randomised controlled trials were funded by the National Institute for Health Research Programme Grants for Applied Research (grant ref No RP-PG-0407-10098). The Internet Dr website was developed using LifeGuide, which was partly funded by the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre (BRC), Southampton. LY is a National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Senior Investigator of the NHS, the NIHR, or the Department of Health. LY is affiliated to the National Institute for Health Research Health Protection Research Unit (NIHR HPRU) in Behavioural Science and Evaluation of Interventions at the University of Bristol in partnership with Public Health England (PHE).

Structured keywords

  • Physical and Mental Health


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