UNLABELLED - Support groups are an important therapeutic intervention for patients with chronic debilitating illnesses. Patients who are difficult to assemble in one physical location may benefit from participating in an electronic support group (ESG). ESGs for adolescents have not been evaluated, although studies have shown a benefit to adult ESGs. Our goals were to create a web-based support service for adolescents with cystic fibrosis (CF) and to qualitatively and quantitatively measure the effects that such a support site could have on patients' relationships with the clinic faculty and staff, access to and interaction with peers with CF, and understanding of CF.
METHODS - A highly interactive ESG was developed after discussions with a team of CF specialists and patients. Eighteen of 37 teenagers with CF agreed to use this site. Each patient was asked to assess his or her perceived availability of and comfort with the clinic staff and faculty, perceived support available through peers, knowledge about CF, and perceived usefulness of the Internet as a support tool.
RESULTS - Participants logged into the site an average of 4 times each month. Teens who owned home computers accessed the site somewhat more frequently than did teens who were provided with home Internet access for the study. Most activity occurred in those sections of the site that described the participants and that allowed them to socialize. Over one half of the participants e-mailed each other at least once a week, with 77% e-mailing peers at least every other week. There was no significant difference in the participants' scores on a quiz about CF at the beginning and the end of the study; however, there was a significant decrease in perceptions about their knowledge about CF. At the conclusion of the study, participants believed that they had more friends who they could relate to than they did at the beginning of the study. Clinic staff noticed an increase in references to peers among the group who were using the site. In addition, 4 of the teens expressed a desire to get together to meet each other as a result of their interactions on the web site. There was no significant change in perceptions about the perceived availability and comfort with the clinic staff and faculty, support available through peers, knowledge about CF, and the usefulness of the Internet as a support environment. Managing the project was extremely easy, with virtually no technical or procedural issues arising during the study.
CONCLUSIONS - Teenagers with a chronic disease will actively participate in an ESG. The social and expressive aspects of their involvement with this support group hold much promise.