Sigma Research

Theories of change for e-health interventions targeting HIV/STIs and sexual risk, substance use and mental ill health amongst men who have sex with men: systematic review and synthesis

Systematic Reviews, 2021; 10:21 (doi: 10.1186/s13643-020-01523-2).

Authors: Rebecca Meiksin, G.J. Melendez-Torres, Jane Falconer, T. Charles Witzel, Peter Weatherburn and Chris Bonell


Background: Sexual risk, substance use, and mental ill health constitute a syndemic of co-occurring, mutually reinforcing epidemics amongst men who have sex with men (MSM). Developed since 1995, e-health interventions offer accessible, anonymous support and can be effective in addressing these outcomes, suggesting the potential value of developing ehealth interventions that address these simultaneously amongst MSM. We conducted a systematic review of e-health interventions addressing one or more of these outcomes amongst MSM and in this paper describe the theories of change underpinning relevant interventions, what these offer and how they might complement each other.

Methods: We identified eligible reports via expert requests, reference-checking and database and Google searches. Results were screened for reports published in 1995 or later; focused on MSM; reporting on e-health interventions providing ongoing support to prevent HIV/STIs, sexual risk behaviour, substance use, anxiety or depression; and describing intervention theories of change. Reviewers assessed report quality, extracted intervention and theory of change data, and developed a novel method of synthesis using diagrammatic representations of theories of change.

Results: Thirty-three reports on 22 intervention theories of change were included, largely of low/medium-quality. Inductively grouping these theories according to their core constructs, we identified three distinct groupings of theorised pathways. In the largest, the ‘cognitive/skills’ grouping, interventions provide information and activities which are theorised to influence behaviour via motivation/intention and self-efficacy/perceived control. In the ‘selfmonitoring’ grouping, interventions are theorised to trigger reflection, self-reward/critique and self-regulation. In the ‘cognitive therapy’ grouping, the theory of change is rooted in cognitive therapy techniques, aiming to reframe negative emotions to improve mental health.

Conclusions: The synthesised theories of change provide a framework for developing e-health interventions that might holistically address syndemic health problems amongst MSM. Improving reporting on theories of change in primary studies of e-health interventions would enable a better understanding of how they are intended to work and the evidence supporting this. The novel diagrammatic method of theory of change synthesis used here could be used for future reviews where interventions are driven by existing well-defined behaviour and behaviour change theories.

Systematic review registration: PROSPERO CRD42018110317

Keywords: e-Health, Digital health, Men who have sex with men, Sexual health, HIV, STI, Substance use, Mental health, Systematic review, Theory of change

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