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An Evidence-Based Approach

Introduction: Evaluation of IHC

Consumers & IHC Evaluation

Developers & IHC Evaluation

Policy Issues Relevant to IHC

Health Care Providers, Purchasers & IHC

SciPICH Final Report

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SciPICH Publications IconWired for Health and Well-Being: The Emergence of Interactive Health Communication

Editors: Thomas R. Eng, David H. Gustafson

Suggested Citation: Science Panel on Interactive Communication and Health. Wired for Health and Well-Being: the Emergence of Interactive Health Communication.  Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, US Government Printing Office, April 1999.

Download in PDF format:  [Entire Document] [References]

Appendix E: Consumer’s Guide to Evaluating IHC Applications

This guide is intended to help consumers interpret evaluation results reported by developers using the Panel’s "Evaluation Reporting Template" in Appendix A. The standardized reporting of evaluation results should help you decide how well IHC applications meet your own needs and help you interpret evaluation results by using the template structure.

To decide whether an IHC program will help meet your specific needs, you will want to know general information about the application and its intent, how the application was developed, how well it "runs," and whether the application achieves its intended effects. The following are questions a consumer might want answered in the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, some of this information may not be easily accessible for many current IHC applications. The Panel wants to help consumers avoid purchasing or using applications that do not provide the information and support needed to make informed decisions.

1. Description of the Program

  • What are the qualifications of the developers? Programs are more likely to be good if developers are "experts" in the content area and have previously developed effective IHC applications.
  • Who sponsored or paid for the program? Programs supported by organizations that have something to gain (e.g. tobacco companies who might support a program on smoking) should be suspect.
  • What is the IHC application intended to do? What are the specific goals and objectives of the application? Do these match your needs?
  • What type of user(s) was the application designed for? Some applications are designed for certain age groups, men or women (or both), certain ethnic or cultural groups, or certain socioeconomic groups. Is the application intended for a specific type of user? Is it appropriate for you?
  • How does the application protect your confidentiality or anonymity? Who will be able to get information about the users?

2. Formative and Process Evaluation

These evaluations are normally part of the development and testing of a new program. Developers use formative evaluation to create applications with a better chance of succeeding in their goals and use process evaluation to make sure the application "runs" well. The application could tell you:

  • Where the content came from and what was done to ensure that it is valid and current. For example, content may come from the published scientific literature, individual "experts," or from the consensus of several experts. What are the backgrounds of the experts? Who sponsored the development? Are the sources of information specified in the application? Can you trust these sources to be current, reliable, and without bias (objective)? Is the content updated at least frequently enough to make sure it is accurate and up-to-date?
  • Whether the content was presented in a way that makes it easy for you to learn. Is it easy to understand? Are the words easy to understand? Graphics, video, and animation can make learning easier, but sometimes they are used just to be fancy. Look to see whether these features are there and whether they actually help you learn. Is the material presented in a way that is tailored to your particular needs or do you have to search hard to find content that helps you?
  • How the application was tested for reading level or understandability. Whom was this tested on and how was it performed? Is it likely to be appropriate for you?
  • Ease of learning. It might be appropriate to have to spend some time learning how to use an application if you plan to use it over and over. But even then, the program should be easy to learn and use.
  • Opportunities for users to suggest improvements to programs.

3. Outcome Evaluation

Outcome evaluations test whether an application does what it is supposed to do. Does it achieve its goals? Some applications try to help you change your behavior (e.g., eat less fat), others try to help you choose between treatment options (e.g., surgery vs. drug therapy), and still others try to provide you with social interaction and support from others. Make sure the goals of the application match your needs. Then, see if there have been outcome evaluations to answer the following questions:

  • How much do users like the application?
  • How helpful do users rate the application?
  • Does the application increase users’ knowledge?
  • Do users change their beliefs or attitudes in a good way?
  • Do users improve their behaviors?
  • Do users get healthier and/or do their symptoms improve?
  • Do users change their use of health care resources or the costs of their health care?
  • Did users experience any bad outcomes?
  • Is your privacy protected? Who will use the information you provide, and how will they use it?

The information about the program could also help decide whether to believe the results and whether you are likely to get the same results. You do not need to be an expert in evaluation to decide whether to believe evaluation results. Here are some simple rules to follow.

1. How good is the evaluation design?

The most valid evaluation is a series of "randomized, doubleblind, controlled trials." Controlled trials compare people who use the program to those who do not, to be sure that changes found would not have occurred without the program. Randomized means that people in the study were assigned randomly (e.g., by flipping a coin) to either get or not get the program. Double blinding means neither subjects nor evaluators know who got the program, so answers to evaluation questions are not influenced by the excitement of being in the test group or disappointment of being in the comparison group. It is difficult to "blind" a computer program evaluation, unless everybody gets a computer, some containing the program and some with general health information. Finally, a single study cannot prove program effectiveness; you need several, or a series of, studies. Although they are not proof, studies can be informative if they are only controlled but not randomized or blinded. And although randomized controlled trials are good for learning whether the program works, they do not tell you why. Many people like "qualitative studies," where evaluators watch people use the program or interview them or look at computer records of how they used the program. They learn a lot, even though these qualitative studies cannot "prove" a program really helps. Bottom line: avoid "evaluations" based only upon user testimonials or expert endorsements. They are not worth much. If risks of harm are small (including risks to time, money, or health) a less-rigorous evaluation may be appropriate. As risks increase, you need more evaluation. If you will use the program to make important health decisions, you may want one that has been tested in several randomized, controlled evaluations.

2. Is it likely that I will experience the same results?

Some evaluations are done using such unique participants, or in such a different place and time, that the results may not apply to you. For example, men and women or young and old users do not always have the same response to applications. Moreover, evaluations from 10 years ago might not produce the same results if performed today. Evaluations cannot be done for all types of people in all places and at all times. Since many programs have different effects on people, some may be helped more than others. Some may even be harmed. You must decide whether the people used in the evaluation (their age, gender, location, education, living situation) are similar enough to your situation that the results are likely to hold for you. That means it is reasonable to expect that evaluators of a program could tell you what kind of people were subjects in the evaluation, so you can decide if they are enough like you. One way to determine this is to look for personal stories in the program. They not only make learning easier but also indicate the type of people for whom this program was designed.

3. Are the evaluators unbiased?

How much you believe the results of an evaluation could depend upon who performed the evaluation. Users will want to know the answers to the following questions:

  • Do any of the evaluators have a financial interest in the sale/dissemination of the application?
  • Who funded the evaluation? Many evaluations will be carried out or financed by the developers themselves—people who want the application to succeed. Financial interest and funding by an "interested party" does not invalidate an evaluation. However, because evaluation results can be presented in a way that highlights positive findings and hides negative findings, a user might prefer that evaluations are completed and reported by an independent party. Because that is likely to be rare, users must be educated consumers who are on the lookout for ways in which evaluation results may be "spun" to make them want to use an application.
  • Is a copy of the evaluation report(s) available for review on request? If the potential risks are great, you or someone you trust should review the evaluation results.


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Comments:   Updated: 05/01/08