Peer Support for the Hardly Reached: A Systematic Review

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Abstract

Background

Health disparities are aggravated when prevention and care initiatives fail to reach those they are intended to help. Groups can be classified as hardly reached according to a variety of circumstances that fall into 3 domains: individual (e.g., psychological factors), demographic (e.g., socioeconomic status), and cultural-environmental (e.g., social network). Several reports have indicated that peer support is an effective means of reaching hardly reached individuals. However, no review has explored peer support effectiveness in relation to the circumstances associated with being hardly reached or across diverse health problems.

Objectives

To conduct a systematic review assessing the reach and effectiveness of peer support among hardly reached individuals, as well as peer support strategies used.

Search methods

Three systematic searches conducted in PubMed identified studies that evaluated peer support programs among hardly reached individuals. In aggregate, the searches covered articles published from 2000 to 2015.

Selection criteria

Eligible interventions provided ongoing support for complex health behaviors, including prioritization of hardly reached populations, assistance in applying behavior change plans, and social-emotional support directed toward disease management or quality of life. Studies were excluded if they addressed temporally isolated behaviors, were limited to protocol group classes, included peer support as the dependent variable, did not include statistical tests of significance, or incorporated comparison conditions that provided appreciable social support.

Data collection and analysis

We abstracted data regarding the primary health topic, categorizations of hardly reached groups, program reach, outcomes, and strategies employed. We conducted a 2-sample t test to determine whether reported strategies were related to reach.

Results

Forty-seven studies met our inclusion criteria, and these studies represented each of the 3 domains of circumstances assessed (individual, demographic, and cultural-environmental). Interventions addressed 8 health areas, most commonly maternal and child health (25.5%), diabetes (17.0%), and other chronic diseases (14.9%). Thirty-six studies (76.6%) assessed program reach, which ranged from 24% to 79% of the study population. Forty-four studies (94%) reported significant changes favoring peer support. Eleven strategies emerged for engaging and retaining hardly reached individuals. Among them, programs that reported a strategy of trust and respect had higher participant retention (82.8%) than did programs not reporting such a strategy (48.1%; P = .003). In 5 of the 6 studies examining moderators of the effects of peer support, peer support benefits were greater among individuals characterized by disadvantage (e.g., low health literacy).

Conclusions

Peer support is a broad and robust strategy for reaching groups that health services too often fail to engage. The wide range of audiences and health concerns among which peer support is successful suggests that a basis for its success may be its flexible response to different contexts, including the intended audience, health problems, and setting.

Public health implications

The general benefits of peer support and findings suggesting that it may be more effective among those at heightened disadvantage indicate that peer support should be considered in programs intended to reach and benefit those too often hardly reached. Because engendering trust and respect was significantly associated with participant retention, programs should emphasize this strategy.

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