Knowledge is Power in New Blood Pressure Study at Penn State

April 16, 2010

Penn State researchers have revived the age-old slogan “knowledge is power” for a new study focused on helping people manage high blood pressure. The project, spearheaded by Dr. William Gerin, professor of biobehavioral health, and Dr. Chris Sciamanna, division chief of general internal medicine at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, received $1.5 million from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute as part of the National Institutes of Health's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding.

“Many people think that high blood pressure is bad because it can lead to other negative health conditions, such as organ failure. However, this is only partially true. Elevated pressure itself is damaging,” says Gerin.  “It is interesting, and problematic, that most researchers who study how to lower peoples’ blood pressure tend to ignore patient education.”

Gerin and his colleagues created an intervention in which patients with high blood pressure are taught about high blood pressure and its adverse effects. They are also quizzed periodically on what they’ve learned using an innovative computer-based technique called Self-Paced Programmed Instruction (SPPI). If they get an answer wrong, they are not “punished” but instead receive more opportunities to answer the question (as many as necessary), and they are also given hints.

“We’re emphasizing to people that we’re not testing them,” says Gerin. “Rather, the information is just for their knowledge, and to help them stay in control of their health. This approach has shown to be effective in teaching all types of materials, simple and complex.”

The intervention has a second component, which is the use of home blood pressure monitors that record blood pressure at intervals throughout the day.

“We know that certain interventions that don’t rely on drugs can have an effect of lowering blood pressure in patients—such as the use of home blood pressure monitors,” says Gerin. “Unfortunately, though, it’s a relatively minor improvement, overall. The same is true for patient education—it’s effective, but only to a small degree. We hypothesize that both components given together will work in tandem to create a more effective intervention that will provide greater benefits to more patients.”

A pilot study of the educational intervention showed dramatic results. Nearly all of the participants increased their scores from no more than 75 percent correct to 95 or 100 percent within a few months.  Gerin notes that the study size was small, though, and the more comprehensive test he is performing now—which involves 250 patients at Penn State Hershey Medical Center—will be a better gauge of the intervention’s effectiveness.  In addition, the pilot study measured only the increase in patients’ knowledge, not its effects on blood pressure, which is the focus of the current project.

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Editors: Bill Gerin can be reached at wxg17@psu.edu. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.