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Listening to Communities: Mixed-Method Study of the Engagement of Disadvantaged Mothers and Pregnant Women With Digital Health Technologies

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Background: US health care providers are increasingly demanding patient engagement with digital health technologies to enroll in care, access personal health information, communicate with providers, and monitor their own health. Such engagement may be difficult for disadvantaged populations who may have limited health literacy, time constraints, or competing priorities.

Objective: We aimed to understand the extent of adoption and use of digital health tools and to identify key perceived psychological motivators of technology use among disadvantaged first-time pregnant women and mothers of young children.

Methods: We recruited women from health organizations serving low-income communities in the Midwest and on the East and West coasts. A total of 92 women participated in 14 focus groups. During each session, we administered worksheets that measured 3 utilization outcomes: the number of recent Web-based health-seeking activities, current use of digital health-management practices (eg, accessing personal health information, communicating with providers, and scheduling appointments), and potential adoption of digital health-management tools among low users or nonusers. Responses to the worksheets and to a pre-focus group survey on demographics, technology access, and motivators of use were examined to create user profiles. Separate regression models identified the motivators (eHealth literacy, internal health orientation, and trust in digital information) associated with these outcomes. Qualitative data were incorporated to illustrate the worksheet responses. 

Results: Whereas 97% of the participants reported that they had searched for health information on the Internet in the past year, 42% did not engage in digital health-management practices. Among the low users and nonusers, 49% expressed interest in future adoption of digital health tools. Web-based health information-seeking activities were associated with digital health-management practices (P<.001). When controlling for covariates, eHealth literacy was positively correlated with the number of Web-based health-seeking activities (beta=.03, 95% CI 0.00-0.07). However, an internal health orientation was a much stronger correlate of digital health-management practices (beta=.13, 95% CI 0.02-0.24), whereas trust in digital information increased the odds of potential adoption (vs no adoption) in adjusted models (OR 5.21, 95% CI 0.84-32.53). Demographic characteristics were not important drivers of digital health use and few differences distinguished use among mothers and pregnant women.

Conclusions: Seeking health information on the Internet may be an important gateway toward engaging in digital health-management practices. Notably, different consumer motivators influence digital health tool use. The relative contributions of each must be explored to design tools and interventions that enhance competencies for the management of self and child health among disadvantaged mothers and pregnant women. Unless we address disparities in digital health tool use, benefits from their use will accrue predominantly to individuals with the resources and skills to use technology effectively.

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