Background - Loneliness in older people is associated with poor health-related quality of life (HRQoL). We undertook a parallel-group randomised controlled trial to evaluate the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of telephone befriending for the maintenance of HRQoL in older people. An internal pilot tested the feasibility of the trial and intervention.
Methods - Participants aged >74 years, with good cognitive function, living independently in one UK city were recruited through general practices and other sources, then randomised to: (1) 6 weeks of short one to one telephone calls, followed by 12 weeks of group telephone calls with up to six participants, led by a trained volunteer facilitator; or (2) a control group. The main trial required the recruitment of 248 participants in a 1-year accrual window, of whom 124 were to receive telephone befriending. The pilot specified three success criteria which had to be met in order to progress the main trial to completion: recruitment of 68 participants in 95 days; retention of 80% participants at 6 months; successful delivery of telephone befriending by local franchise of national charity. The primary clinical outcome was the Short Form (36) Health Instrument (SF-36) Mental Health (MH) dimension score collected by telephone 6 months following randomisation.
Results - We informed 9,579 older people about the study. Seventy consenting participants were randomised to the pilot in 95 days, with 56 (80%) providing valid primary outcome data (26 intervention, 30 control). Twenty-four participants randomly allocated to the research arm actually received telephone befriending due to poor recruitment and retention of volunteer facilitators. The trial was closed early as a result. The mean 6-month SF-36 MH scores were 78 (SD 18) and 71 (SD 21) for the intervention and control groups, respectively (mean difference, 7; 95% CI, -3 to 16).
Conclusions - Recruitment and retention of participants to a definitive trial with a recruitment window of 1 year is feasible. For the voluntary sector to recruit sufficient volunteers to match demand for telephone befriending created by trial recruitment would require the study to be run in more than one major population centre, and/or involve dedicated management of volunteers.