Effect of layperson-delivered, empathy-focused program of telephone calls on loneliness, depression, and anxiety among adults during the COVID-19 pandemic: A randomized clinical trial
Kahlon, M.K., Aksan, N., Aubrey, R., Clark, N., Cowley-Morillo, M., Jacobs, E.A., ... Tomlinson, S.
Importance Loneliness is a risk factor for many clinical conditions, but there are few effective interventions deployable at scale.
Objective To determine whether a layperson-delivered, empathy-focused program of telephone calls could rapidly improve loneliness, depression, and anxiety in at-risk adults.
Design, Setting, and Participants From July 6 to September 24, 2020, we recruited and followed up 240 adults who were assigned to receive calls (intervention group) or no calls (control group) via block randomization. Loneliness, depression, and anxiety were measured using validated scales at enrollment and after 4 weeks. Intention-to-treat analyses were conducted. Meals on Wheels Central Texas (MOWCTX) clients received calls in their homes or wherever they might have been when the call was received. The study included MOWCTX clients who fit their service criteria, including being homebound and expressing a need for food. A total of 296 participants were screened, of whom 240 were randomized to intervention or control.
Interventions Sixteen callers, aged 17 to 23 years, were briefly trained in empathetic conversational techniques. Each called 6 to 9 participants over 4 weeks daily for the first 5 days, after which clients could choose to drop down to fewer calls but no less than 2 calls a week.
Main Outcomes and Measures Primary outcome was loneliness (3-item UCLA Loneliness Scale, range 3-9; and 6-item De Jong Giervald Loneliness [De Jong] Scale, range 0-6). Secondary outcomes were depression (Personal Health Questionnaire for Depression), anxiety (Generalized Anxiety Disorder scale), and self-rated health (Short Form Health Survey Questionnaire).
Results The 240 participants were aged 27 to 101 years, with 63% aged at least 65 years (n = 149 of 232), 56% living alone (n = 135 of 240), 79% women (n = 190 of 240), 39% Black or African American (n = 94 of 240), and 22% Hispanic or Latino (n = 52 of 240), and all reported at least 1 chronic condition. Of 240 participants enrolled, 13 were lost to follow-up in the intervention arm and 1 in the control arm. Postassessment differences between intervention and control after 4 weeks showed an improvement of 1.1 on the UCLA Loneliness Scale (95% CI, 0.5-1.7; P < .001; Cohen d of 0.48), and improvement of 0.32 on De Jong (95% CI, −0.20 to 0.81; P = .06; Cohen d, 0.17) for loneliness; an improvement of 1.5 on the Personal Health Questionnaire for Depression (95% CI, 0.22-2.7; P < .001; Cohen d, 0.31) for depression; and an improvement of 1.8 on the Generalized Anxiety Disorder scale (95% CI, 0.44 to 3.2; P < .001; Cohen d, 0.35) for anxiety. General physical health on the Short Form Health Questionnaire Survey showed no change, but mental health improved by 2.6 (95% CI, 0.81 to 4.4; P = .003; Cohen d of 0.46).
Conclusions and Relevance A layperson-delivered, empathy-oriented telephone call program reduced loneliness, depression, and anxiety compared with the control group and improved the general mental health of participants within 4 weeks. Future research can determine whether effects on depression and anxiety can be extended to maximize clinical relevance.