Background: As Internet use grows, health interventions are increasingly being delivered online. Pioneering researchers are using the networking potential of the Internet, and several of them have evaluated these interventions.
Objective: The objective was to review the reasons why health interventions have been delivered on the Internet and to reflect on the work of the pioneers in this field in order to inform future research.
Methods: We conducted a qualitative systematic review of peer-reviewed evaluations of health interventions delivered to a known client/patient group using networked features of the Internet. Papers were reviewed for the reasons given for using the Internet, and these reasons were categorized.
Results: We included studies evaluating 28 interventions plus 9 interventions that were evaluated in pilot studies. The interventions were aimed at a range of health conditions. Reasons for Internet delivery included low cost and resource implications due to the nature of the technology; reducing cost and increasing convenience for users; reduction of health service costs; overcoming isolation of users; the need for timely information; stigma reduction; and increased user and supplier control of the intervention. A small number of studies gave the existence of Internet interventions as the only reason for undertaking an evaluation of this mode of delivery.
Conclusions: One must remain alert for the unintended effects of Internet delivery of health interventions due to the potential for reinforcing the problems that the intervention was designed to help. Internet delivery overcomes isolation of time, mobility, and geography, but it may not be a substitute for face-to-face contact. Future evaluations need to incorporate the evaluation of cost, not only to the health service but also to users and their social networks. When researchers report the outcomes of Internet-delivered health care interventions, it is important that they clearly state why they chose to use the Internet, preferably backing up their decision with theoretical models and exploratory work. Evaluation of the effectiveness of a health care intervention delivered by the Internet needs to include comparison with more traditional modes of delivery to answer the following question: What are the added benefits or disadvantages of Internet use that are particular to this mode of delivery?