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The benefit of using digital devices and information technology for people with SCI

Author of summary: Rachel Park (Swiss Paraplegic Research)
Original article: Mattar AA, Hitzig SL, McGillivray CF. A qualitative study on the use of personal information technology by persons with spinal cord injury. Disability and Rehabilitation. 2014 Sep 26:1-10. [Epub ahead of print]

Daily use of digital devices/technology for people with a spinal cord injury (SCI) can contribute to better health and well-being. Technology can provide people with an SCI with access to SCI-related health information and opportunities for social integration and participation, hence increasing their quality of life.

What was the aim of this study?

Previous research has proven that the use of technology and digital devices (e.g. computers, tablets, cellphones) can benefit the health and well-being of individuals with chronic health conditions. One SCI study found that owning a cellphone was associated with better social integration. With the help of modifications, many people with SCI can use these devices regularly.

Up until now, however, the details about device use among the SCI population had not been studied. This study allowed researchers to learn details of how people with an SCI integrated technology into their day-to-day lives.

How did the researchers proceed?

Ten people with SCI were recruited into the study. All identified themselves as regular users of technology and who had been living in the community for at least twelve months following their initial in-patient rehabilitation. Data was collected and analyzed from both questionnaires and semi-structured interviews.

What did the researchers discover?

The researchers identified the types of modifications needed to improve the accessibility and usability of devices for people with SCI (e.g. to attach them to the wheelchair with a clip, to use a trackball instead of a mouse) and gathered considerations for further technology development.

Moreover, the researchers found three main themes associated with daily use of digital devices/technology which can help contribute to better general health and both physical (e.g. sports/fitness, activities) and mental (e.g. forums, long-distance friendships) well-being:

  • accessing health information: looking up information on prescriptions, bladder and bowel issues, nutrition, physician reviews
  • social interaction: using social media to make contact with post SCI friends or old friends and family, employment opportunities, support groups and forums
  • current events: travel opportunities, physical activities, SCI groups, venue accessibility

Finally, the researchers found that, along with the vast amount of available on-line information, participants showed some skepticism on the quality of the information. They tended to question exactly how reliable the information online was, and if it was applicable to their specific situation. Many times it was unknown who was posting the information or what their qualifications were to be writing about a complex condition such as SCI. Some participants also had difficulties finding detailed information or information that matched what they had been taught at their rehab centers.

What do these findings mean?

The study provided some important insights on how persons with SCI incorporate digital devices in their day-to-day lives. The use of these devices seems to benefit this population by increasing their knowledge on their condition, increasing their access to social contacts and employment/school opportunities, and making them feel that they are participating and active in the community. Due to the many benefits of frequent use, technology could be integrated into more rehabilitation programs.

However, the use of digital devices and information technology also poses some challenges. First, in terms of usability: new devices become lighter and sleeker and it often makes them more difficult to use for people with SCI. Future developments should be made also with their perspective in mind.

Second, in terms of evaluation of online information: while the amount of SCI-related information on the internet can be a bit overwhelming for both patients and health professionals, an aim could be to help new patients uncover how reliable the information is. To keep up with the times and to shape the future of health online, it is important that trained health and information technology professionals work together with SCI consumers.

Who conducted and financed the study?

The study was conducted by the University of Toronto. Funding and support were provided by the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and the Ministry of Health in Ontario.

For more information about participation and quality of life in SCI, please visit the website of the original authors:

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