March 23, 2012
A study was published this week in Annals of Internal Medicine on the effects of peer mentoring.
Researchers analyzed the blood glucose control of 120 African-American patients struggling with diabetes. The researchers chose these patients because African-Americans tend to be affected more frequently and have more severe complications than other groups from diabetes, a condition that can be mitigated by changes in diet and exercise.
The patients were randomly divided into three groups. Those in one group saw their doctors and received the usual care; those in another group were offered up to $200 if they could improve their glucose control over time; and individuals in the third group were assigned a peer mentor, a fellow patient who had also struggled with but eventually managed to control his diabetes.
Peer mentors were encouraged, but not required, to phone their assigned mentee once a week.
After six months, the only group of patients who had significantly improved their blood sugar control was the group with peer mentors. Those who were promised a financial reward showed only slight improvements, and those who simply saw their doctors regularly did not improve at all.
“People who were struggling with their diabetes managed to create a partnership with those who had faced the same issues but managed to do well,” said Dr. Judith A. Long, lead author and a staff physician and faculty member at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion.
While work done by the mentors in this study seems similar to that performed by community health workers, carrying out this peer mentor program was far less complex and time-consuming. During an hourlong one-on-one training session with a research assistant, the mentors learned some motivational techniques, like asking open-ended questions and identifying realistic goals. But mostly, they were encouraged to draw on their own history.