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Clicking your way to better health: A web-based tool for people living with HIV

Researchers are now harnessing an online platform to improve wellbeing in people living with HIV.

Once considered a death sentence, successfully treated HIV is now a manageable, chronic condition. Joining the nearly half of Canadian adults who have a chronic health condition, people living with HIV and their caregivers are now focusing on wellbeing and quality of life.

Though a cure has yet to be found, advancements in treatment means that a person living with HIV can control the level of the virus in their blood, even to a point where the risk of transmitting the virus to another person is virtually impossible.

Today, a primary challenge for many people living with HIV is growing old in a healthy way. Having HIV means you’re at greater risk of developing chronic conditions that are often associated with aging, like heart disease and diabetes, so healthy habits are crucial. This is because the virus triggers a sustained response from the immune system, putting the body into a constant state of low-level inflammation and at higher risk for some diseases. Unfortunately, studies have shown that physical activity levels are lower and smoking is much more common in people living with HIV.

Putting down the cigarette and taking up exercise is easier said than done, especially when dealing with a chronic condition like HIV. To help encourage healthy changes, researchers from the CIHR Canadian HIV Trials Network are taking health promotion and behaviour change online through the use of an innovative digital tool, being tested in the LHIVE Healthy Study.

The use of web-based tools for health education is nothing new, but what makes this study innovative is the tailoring of the tool. The tool is tailored to each person following an individual evaluation. For example, if someone is trying to eat better, the web tool can incorporate an individual’s intentions about healthy eating (and how they feel about eating healthy foods) and provide personalized feedback and training.

The online tool consists of interactive sessions with a virtual nurse that guides users to develop self-management and health literacy skills. The platform is also responsive to the individual needs of each user. For example, a person who has never exercised will receive a high level of support whereas someone who only needs a nudge to get off the couch will receive less. The virtual nurse also references the experiences of other people living with HIV who have successfully coped with similar situations.

Many people, especially those in rural and remote areas, are not easily able to access health-related resources and clinics. This online platform removes some of those barriers, widening access to important wellness resources and supporting people living with HIV to live long, healthy lives. Distance means nothing in the online world, so in a country as large as Canada, this tool is a unique way to overcome unavoidable geographic barriers and reach people from coast to coast, from the biggest cities to the smallest towns.

The goal is not to replace traditional face-to-face doctor’s visits but to provide accessible and complementary support to improve overall quality of care.

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