New Research: The Surprising Health Benefits of Online Health Forums

online health forum, social media

Even as the internet enables an exchange of information on a transformative level, online health forums still get the Rodney Dangerfield treatment: They don’t get no respect.

That’s unfortunate because as new research shows, the information provided in online healthcare discussions is often better than the nay-sayers believe.

Published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, the study looked at 25 health-related discussion threads, asking 17 assessors (eight were medical doctors, nine were not) to rate the information in them according to five criteria: accuracy, completeness, how sensible the replies were, how they thought the questioner would act and how useful they thought the questioner would find the replies.

The results? Of 78 assessments, 25 rated the information as high quality and 38 rated it as reasonably high quality. Just three rated the information as extremely poor. As the study concluded:

Health threads on Internet discussion forum websites are more likely than not (by a factor of 4:1) to contain information of high or reasonably high quality. This suggests that discussion forum websites may be a useful platform through which people can ask health-related questions and receive answers of acceptable quality.

Such findings won’t surprise those doctors who already contribute to online health discussions. They already know that such forums are where an increasingly large number of potential patients turn for insights and information. And as a 2011 study by QuantiaMD showed, 66% of doctors who were familiar with online patient communities considered their impact on patients to be positive or very positive.

For aesthetic consumers, online patient communities play a crucial role throughout their research, allowing them to ask questions, view before & after photos and connect with others who have faced similar situations. In fact, according to RealSelf research, seven in 10 say it’s very important to read about the experiences of others. And when asked why RealSelf users were asked why they decided to share their own story, 38% said they believed it was important to give back to the community and “pay it forward.”

Doctors have a role to play, as well. For one thing, practitioners who share their expertise help counter the misinformation spread by those with ulterior motives; for another, they demonstrate a willingness to meet potential patients on those patients’ terms. And as the comments from RealSelf users below make clear, patients simply expect doctors to participate:

  • “Patients’ confidence can be improved after hearing intelligent answers from surgeons. It’s good to be very engaged to show your practice’s pictures and be able to respond to people (in general) who may want surgery.”
  • “They should have a way to showcase their work; it will help the patients view their work and also make them comfortable with the doctor.”
  • “You need to be able to do some research independently. If [they’re] not engaged, how do you know they exist/are an option?”

At the same time, patients’ reliance on online communities is just one part of the larger changes that are transforming every aspect of healthcare. Today’s patients have access to a near-infinite trove of information; they know they have choices, and they’re all but immune to traditional advertising and marketing messages. They trust their peers — even those they’ve only met through online communities — and count on them to provide honest, unbiased insights that they can use to make more confident decisions about their care. As a recent post from MedPartners puts it,

The growth of these communities points to a broader sea of change happening throughout healthcare, the empowerment of the patient. Instead of seeing medicine as something that flows from the doctor, through the healthcare apparatus, and ultimately to the patient; the patient is seen as an equal partner in their care strategy.

Of course, no one is suggesting that online health forums are a replacement for doctors but they clearly play an important role in the decisions potential patients make regarding their subsequent care. Doctors who want to remain relevant (and visible) to those patients would be wise to join the discussion.

Photo by NEC Corporation of America via Flickr

About Rob Lovitt

Rob Lovitt is a longtime writer and editor who believes every good business has a great story to tell. He has written for dozens of magazines and websites, including NBCnews.com, Expedia.com and the inflight magazines of Alaska, Horizon and Frontier airlines.

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