Design, delivery, maintenance, and outcomes of peer-to-peer online support groups for people with chronic musculoskeletal disorders: systematic review

Liam R. MacLachlan, Kathryn Mills*, Belinda J. Lawford, Thorlene Egerton, Jenny Setchell, Leanne M. Hall, Melanie L. Plinsinga, Manuela Besomi, Pek Ling Teo, Jillian P. Eyles, Rebecca Mellor, Luciano Melo, Sarah Robbins, Paul W. Hodges, David J. Hunter, Bill Vicenzino, Kim L. Bennell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)
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Background: Online support groups (OSGs) are one way for people with chronic diseases, their family or friends, and health professionals to communicate, gain information, and provide social support. As the number of peer-to-peer OSGs for chronic musculoskeletal conditions grows, it is important to gain insight into the different designs of groups available, who is accessing them, if and how they may be effective, and what strategies are being used to implement or increase consumer engagement. Objective: The objectives of this systematic review of people with musculoskeletal conditions were to (1) describe the design features (functions, usage options, moderation, and expert input) of peer-to-peer OSGs, (2) describe the characteristics of the individuals using peer-to-peer OSGs, (3) synthesize the evidence on outcomes of participation, and (4) identify strategies used in the delivery and maintenance of OSGs. Methods: A search comprising terms related to the population (people with musculoskeletal disorders) and the intervention (peer-to-peer OSGs) was conducted in 6 databases. Results were filtered from 1990 (internet inception) to February 2019. Studies identified in the search were screened according to predefined eligibility criteria using a 2-step process. Quantitative studies were appraised by 2 reviewers using the Risk Of Bias In Non-Randomized Studies of Interventions tool. Qualitative studies were appraised by 2 different reviewers using the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme checklist. Extracted data were synthesized narratively. Results: We examined 21 studies with low to moderate risk of bias. Of these studies, 13 studies included OSGs hosted on public platforms, 11 studies examined OSGs that were conducted in English, and 6 studies used moderators or peer leaders to facilitate engagement. Studies either reported the number of OSG members (n=1985 across all studies) or the number of posts (range: 223-200,000). The majority of OSG members were females who were not full-time employees and with varied levels of education. There were no randomized controlled trials measuring the efficacy of OSGs. Qualitative and quantitative studies identified empowerment, social support, self-management behavior, and health literacy as primary constructs to measure OSG efficacy. Neutral or marginal improvement was reported in these constructs. Sharing experiences and a greater level of engagement appeared to have an important influence on OSGs efficacy. The extent to which members posted on the website influenced engagement. Conclusions: Across a diverse range of designs, languages, included features, and delivery platforms, peer-to-peer OSGs for chronic musculoskeletal conditions attract predominantly female participants of all ages and education levels. The level of participation of a member appears to be related to their perceived benefit, health literacy, and empowerment. Future studies are needed to identify which design and maintenance strategies have superior efficacy and whether there are concomitant improvements in health outcomes for people with chronic musculoskeletal conditions resulting from participation in OSGs. Trial Registration: PROSPERO International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews CRD42018090326;

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere15822
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 24 Apr 2020

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2020. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • Empowerment
  • Musculoskeletal diseases
  • Online social networking
  • Social support


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