Exploring Working Relationships in Mental Health Care via an E-Recovery Portal: Qualitative Study on the Experiences of Service Users and Health Providers

JMIR Ment Health. 2017 Nov 14;4(4):e54. doi: 10.2196/mental.8491.

Abstract

Background: The quality of working relationships between service users and health providers is fundamental in the processes of recovery in mental health. How Internet-based interventions will influence these relationships for persons with long-term care needs, and the measures that can be taken to maintain and enhance working relationships through Internet, is still not well understood.

Objective: The aim of this study was to gain insights into how service users and health providers experience their working relationships when they are offered the option of supplementing ongoing collaboration with an e-recovery portal.

Methods: In this exploratory and descriptive study, an e-recovery portal was used by service users and their health providers in 2 mental health communities in Norway for at least 6 months and at most 12 months (2015-2016). The portal consists of secure messaging, a peer support forum, and a toolbox of resources for working with life domains including status, goals and activities, network map, crisis plan, and exercises. The portal was owned and managed by the service user while health providers could remotely access parts of the service user-generated content. The participants could use the portal in whatever way they wished, to suit their collaboration. Data from 6 focus groups, 17 individual interviews, and an interview with 1 dyad about their experiences of use of the portal over the study period were inductively coded and thematically analyzed.

Results: The thematic analysis resulted in 2 main themes: (1) new relational avenues and (2) out of alignment, illustrated by 8 subthemes. The first main theme is about dyads who reported new and enriching ways of working together through the portal, particularly related to written communication and use of the goal module. Illustrative subthemes are ownership, common ground, goals and direction, and sense of presence and availability. The second main theme illuminates the difficulties that arose when service users' and health providers' expectations for portal use were not aligned, and the consequences of not addressing these difficulties. Illustrative subthemes are initiative and responsibility, waiting for the other, feeling overwhelmed, and clarifications and agreements.

Conclusions: The degree to which dyads benefited from using the e-recovery portal appeared to be mainly associated with the degree to which the dyads' relations were open and flexible before the portal was introduced. For those who experienced frustrations, the portal may have both exposed and added to suboptimal working relationships. Use of the goal module appeared to strengthen the person-centered nature of collaboration. A key question is how health providers balance between enabling service users' greater control over their care, without relinquishing responsibility for the quality of the working relationship, also when using an e-recovery portal. Implications for implementation are discussed.

Keywords: e-recovery; eHealth; empowerment; mental health; participatory research; psychiatry; recovery; secure email; user involvement; working relationship.