Online Tool Provides Hope For Women Experiencing Partner Violence

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Picture: Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

LONDON, On: Intimate partner violence (IPV) affects 1 in 3 Canadian women and is linked to increased risk of injury, physical and mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, that are often long-term.

For many women, dealing with the violence and the effects of violence is a long-term, complicated process. Many face barriers to support, such as a lack of services, stigma or desire for privacy. Regrettably, only 1 in 5 Canadian women experiencing IPV access violence services, such as shelters. And while Canadian women use health services at high rates, their health care providers may not know about the abuse or how to support them.

Researchers at Western University, University of British Columbia (UBC) and University of New Brunswick (UNB) may have found a solution.

A team led by Marilyn Ford-Gilboe, Western’s Women’s Health Research Chair in Rural Health, has developed a secure, online tool that intuitively walks each woman through questions and activities to help them weigh the risks in her relationship and identify what is most important to her, and then provides personalized suggestions to help the woman deal with her safety, health and other concerns, along with links and contact information for services that can help.

iCAN Plan 4 Safety (iCAN) is the first interactive, online health and safety resource of its kind for Canadian women experiencing IPV. It was designed to be inclusive for women from varied backgrounds and personalized to ‘fit’ with each woman’s situation, priorities and needs. It puts control for decisions and actions in their hands – linking them to other supports if they wish.

iCAN was developed using the latest research around intimate partner violence and vetted by experts – both women who have experienced abuse and community leaders who support them. It is 1 of 4 country-specific online tools developed and tested through an international collaboration.

The first results about the safety, helpfulness and impacts of iCAN were published today in the journal, BMC Public Health. Ford-Gilboe collaborated with co-leads Colleen Varcoe from UBC and Kelly Scott-Storey from UNB, and a team of researchers on the CIHR-funded project.

For the study, 462 women from three provinces (ON, BC, NB) who were experiencing partner violence used iCAN. These participants came from varied and diverse background and living situations.

As a randomized controlled trial, participants who used the personalized iCAN were compared to those participants who used a shorter, less personalized version of the online tool.

To track changes in women’s lives over time, women completed four online surveys over a one-year period. Women also provided feedback about the online tool, and about 40 women took part in an interview about their experiences.

Women in both groups reported improvements in mental health, confidence in safety planning, and decreased coercion from their abusive partners, with no evidence of harms.

Certain groups of women benefitted from the more personalized online tool including women parenting children under 18 years, those experiencing more severe abuse, women not living with an abusive partner when they started the study and women living in medium and large urban settings.

“There has been tremendous growth in online information and apps for women experiencing partner violence – but most are not based on evidence, nor have they been tested for safety and impacts for women,” explains Ford-Gilboe.

“Our promising findings address this gap with a made in Canada solution that women find helpful and safe to use, and that has benefits for specific groups of women.”

Ford-Gilboe says online interventions, such as iCAN, are not meant to replace existing services, but they have potential to complement and extend services that support women experiencing partner violence.   A promising next step is to make a new public version of iCAN freely available to Canadian women as an app (My Plan Canada).

Women will be able to access this new app on their own, but Ford-Gilboe and her team will also work with agencies serving women who have experienced partner violence to see how this new technology can be integrated into the services they provide.

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