Patient Self-Management Support Programs: An Evaluation


Managing a chronic illness is a time consuming and complex process. Yet, often it is chronically ill patients themselves who are called on to manage the broad array of factors that contribute to their health. Individuals with diabetes, for example, provide close to 95 percent of their own care. Common sense suggests—and health care experts agree—that the chronically ill should receive support to help them manage their illnesses as effectively as possible.

Programs that provide this support—so-called "self-management support"—have been developed in recognition that treating chronic illness requires a new model of care. In 2003, the Institute of Medicine defined self-management support as "the systematic provision of education and supportive interventions by health care staff to increase patients' skills and confidence in managing their health problems, including regular assessment of progress and problems, goal setting, and problem-solving support." Self-management support programs are expected to reduce costly health crises and improve health outcomes for chronically ill patients with conditions such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes, heart failure, and migraine headaches.

Many policymakers, providers, insurers, employers, and payers such as Medicaid are enthusiastic about the new model. But a limited evidence base related to these programs translates into uncertainty about programming features and wide variation in the way they are designed, delivered, and evaluated. This situation is challenging for providers who are developing funding announcements for programs, negotiating contracts with program vendors, or planning or managing their own self-management support programs.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) commissioned this report to identify and examine the factors that purchasers and builders of programs should consider when they are deciding on program components. The report was prepared for AHRQ by the RAND Corporation. The authors conducted a literature review and interviews with self-management support experts to identify and evaluate the range of program models and their features. They also identified measures that are used to judge the effectiveness and efficiency of the programs. Key findings and recommendations for developing a self-management support program are discussed here.

Self-Management Support Programs Aim to Change Patient Behavior

Self-management support programs assume a complex sequence of effects. Developers expect these programs to change patients' behavior by increasing the patients' self-efficacy and knowledge. Improved behavior is expected to lead to better disease control which should, in turn, lead to better patient outcomes and reduced utilization of health care services, particularly preventable emergency room visits and hospitalizations, and ultimately to reduced costs.

This sequence of assumptions gives self-management support programs multiple objectives and multiple endpoints for evaluation. The pivotal objective, however, is to change people's behavior.

Basic Models Will Differ According to Program Position

An initial step in choosing or building a self-management support program is to decide where in the health care system the program will be positioned. Will it be managed and administered within the patient's primary care setting or external to it? This distinction often has important ramifications for the degree to which the self-management support is integrated with other aspects of the patient's chronic care and thus who the players are, the quantity and kind of data available to support it, and the nature of administrative oversight and support.

Where a program is located may depend to some extent on where in the health care system the purchaser or developer is located. A health plan or employer whose eligible population is thinly spread across numerous independent primary care settings might well consider an external model for practical reasons. A medical group or independent delivery system is likely to have more options for organizing the self-management support program either within or outside the primary care setting.

Programs Should Provide Both Coaching and Patient Education

Other decisions about the program will pertain to factors such as:

  • Staffing.
  • Content of the support.
  • Patient population served.
  • Information support.
  • Protocols for how staff members are to provide the support.
  • Staff training.
  • Communication with patients.
  • Communication between primary care physicians and self-management support staff.

For a program that seeks to change patient behavior, a key underlying consideration is the need to include both supportive coaching interventions and educational interventions as part of the program content. While patient education is necessary, it alone is not sufficient. Rather than being prescriptive or hierarchical, coaching interventions should be patient-centered and tailored to the needs and concerns defined by the patient and his or her situation. As coaches, the care managers therefore must have timely access to information on patients' behaviors, priorities, skills, and needs. In addition to information, they may need to provide such support as skills training, collaborative decisionmaking and goal setting, problem solving, motivation and confidence building, reinforcement, and followup.

Staffing decisions should take into account the need for coaches who have the psychosocial skills to facilitate a patient's change in behavior, as well as teaching skills. The information a coach needs for an educational intervention may be disease-specific, but the core skill set needed for coaching may be the same no matter what the disease or condition. Providers and program developers might consider differentiating the self-management support tasks and looking for people with different skills for different tasks.

Training and protocols for the care managers are important program components. Training is especially important since many coaching skills are not taught in professional schools such as nursing schools. Protocols bring consistency to the way the program is delivered, provide a structure within which care managers can apply their coaching skills, and enhance the managers' training.

Measures Are Needed to Evaluate the Success of the Program

The measures used to assess the success of the program should align with the goals of the program. If the pivotal objective of self-management support is to help patients change their behavior and manage their disease, then evaluation should start with measures of patients' behavior changes. For example, whether or not patients comply with their medication regimen is a better indicator of a program's success than whether a physician prescribes medication, since a change in provider behavior usually is not the primary objective of self-management support. In addition, measuring only patient visits to the hospital or the costs of various aspects of patient care would be overly narrow, especially in the short term.

Likewise, the measurement timeframe needs to match the timeframe in which the self-management support objectives can be attained. Some changes happen sooner, some later. For example, patient self-efficacy and behavior need to change before reduced hospitalizations and costs can be realized. To evaluate the success of a program based on hospitalizations and costs before evaluating and improving patient self-efficacy and behavior might result in premature and unnecessarily negative results. Match measurement to the time course in which change is happening, with longer, realistic time allowances for the long-term outcomes.

The best approach is a portfolio of measures that address the different, sequential objectives of self-management support. This approach should include measures of whether patients get better at managing their disease and allow sufficient time to assess if patients' changed behaviors lead to the hoped-for long-term outcomes.

Finally, it is important to carefully consider the potential for bias when selecting measures of patients' changed behavior. Whenever possible, rely on information that is directly available from an objective source (e.g., pharmacy records) rather than a patient's own report. When it is necessary to rely on patient self-report, try to avoid collecting this information through the coaches (some patients may exaggerate their good behavior in an effort to please their coaches) or only from those who agreed to participate in the program (to avoid selection bias).

Looking Ahead

The research evidence base for the design of self-management support programs and their evaluation is very limited, and more and better research in most of the areas discussed above is sorely needed.Further research will provide critical guidance to those who are struggling to design optimal self-management support programs, to change behavior, and to improve the health of the chronically ill.

Return to Contents
Proceed to Next Section

Page last reviewed October 2014
Page originally created September 2012
Internet Citation: Summary. Content last reviewed October 2014. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.