Igniting Engagement: Peer Support Workers as Digital Health Champions

Digital health technologies have become a promising way to identify, assess and treat mental health conditions. These technologies have the potential to address many of the existing barriers that accompany traditional mental health treatments and extend care to those without access. Many of these technologies are accompanied by strong engagement during initial testing phases as measured by how often individuals use the technologies and engage with the unique features of the applications. Measuring how clients engage with these technologies is vital as it directly impacts the effectiveness of the interventions being administered. Strong engagement is associated with greater adherence, behavioural changes and better treatment outcomes, thereby increasing overall well-being.   

While crucial for the effectiveness of digital health platforms, engagement tends to drop off over time. Thus, developers and clinicians are left wondering how to get clients to engage with digital health technologies and keep them engaged. While many strategies can be integrated into the technologies themselves, such as tangible rewards or gamification, there are also strategies unrelated to the technologies that can enormously facilitate engagement, such as integrating peer support workers.   

Many published pilots on digital health technologies in the mental health sphere have shown that engagement with technologies is much stronger when peer support workers are integrated into the administration and facilitation of technologies. In our multi-site implementation of a digital health app called A4i that aims to improve treatment self-management of individuals living with schizophrenia and psychosis, we found that engagement was significantly higher in our peer support implementation compared to our implementations without peer support workers. This engagement reached far beyond just the use of the application itself, such as through likes and use of the various features, but also onto the quality of life and treatment effectiveness. Furthermore, integrating peer support workers also facilitated greater recruitment and retention rates.   

So, how can peer support workers facilitate great engagement with digital health technologies and improve their potential? First, peer support can enhance the user experience in a way that technologies alone cannot. This includes offering a sense of belonging and community and sharing similar experiences to provide motivation and inspiration. Second, while technologies offer significant potential, they sometimes feel impersonal and automated. Peer support workers bridge this gap, bringing back a sense of connection and empathy. Together, peer support workers and technologies can leverage the benefits of peer support and digital health technology that is stronger than either method alone. Third, while clinicians often administer digital mental health platforms to clients, peer support workers can offer complementary care between appointments and unique perspectives from their own experiences, providing greater access to care and support. They can also help clients navigate technology and address technical challenges and limited digital literacy. Beyond this, many factors play into the consistent finding of increased engagement on digital health platforms when peer support workers are integrated. Perhaps the most important is that they bring back the “humanness” often missing from even the best of technologies.   

In conclusion, peer support workers have the potential to play a vital role in the field of digital health technologies. Their involvement enhances user experience and facilitates engagement, further increasing the potential of technology in mental health care. For those looking to increase engagement on their applications and platforms, integrating peer support workers may serve as a way to enhance engagement and treatment outcomes.   

Sana Junaid

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