Online Health CommunititesCan blogs, chats and forums replace a cadre of skilled healthcare providers? Probably not, but they can contribute to information exchange, self-management and collaboration among physicians.

Flummoxed by the rapid aging of Western societies, the scarcity of skilled providers to care for people with complex healthcare needs, and the threatened unaffordability of care, researchers recently looked at the use of online health communities (OHCs) as a tool to address some of these challenges.

The OHCs are Internet-based platforms that unite either a group of patients, a group of professionals, or a mixture of both. Members interact using modern communication technologies such as blogs, chats and forums.

There are four benefits to using OHCs in chronic care, according to researchers from the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR):

  1. Facilitate the Exchange of Medical Experience and Knowledge: Due to rapid advances in medical knowledge, many health professionals lack specific expertise and experience to address complex healthcare needs. Therefore, healthcare is increasingly organized within specialized networks whose processes occur largely offline during physical encounters, such as medical conferences.However, modern communication technologies now support professional networks online. Within OHCs, professionals connect and communicate more easily, regardless of their working place within the network, and regardless of time. OHCs can be used to develop disease-specific expertise among all community members, patients and professionals interested in a particular chronic condition.
  2. Enhance Interdisciplinary Collaboration Across Institutions and Traditional Echelons: Healthcare delivery can become fragmented for chronic patients when they acquire relationships with multiple professionals and institutions. To manage complex patients with multiple comorbidities, health professionals must collaborate to make coordinated decisions and share responsibilities in health outcomes.OHCs offer a platform for supporting medical decision-making and interdisciplinary collaboration across professionals caring for complex patients. OHCs enable communication between community members, bridging geographical distances and enable interaction across institutions and traditional echelons.
  3. Provide a Platform to Support Self-Management: Typically, patients have a passive role and lack the tools to self-manage their condition. However, modern patients search the Internet for medical information, wish to have open communication channels with their physicians, and prefer to participate in making treatment decisions. Supporting patients with chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and asthma to self-manage their condition helps to improve the quality and safety of care and reduces costly and inappropriate use of healthcare resources.Chronic patients using online communication tools become more knowledgeable, feel better socially supported and empowered, and have improved behavioral and clinical outcomes compared to nonusers. Examples that include OHC principles are patient participation in online peer support groups and access to personal health communities (PHCs). PHCs allow patients to have access to medical records, control their own online information, and enable individualized health communication.
  4. Have the Ability to Improve Patient-Centered Care: Patient-centeredness is about engaging patients to become active participants in their care to reduce healthcare utilization and improve efficiency, patient-doctor communication, treatment compliance, and health outcomes. OHCs enhance patient-centered care by improved access to personalized information, emotional support and patient participation.PHCs are essentially patient-centered, while they engage patients in their care process and tailor care to their individual needs. Professionals can benefit from patient peer-to-peer conversations that take place in OHCs by knowing that they have more effectively addressed their patients’ needs. Blog and forum items often involve aspects of patient-centered care, such as information and emotional support needs, patients’ willingness to participate in treatment decisions, or an experienced lack of continuity of care.

The researchers concluded that OHCs are a powerful tool to address some of the challenges chronic care faces today. Further evaluation should address user needs, risks, benefits, and cost implications before OHCs can be fully adopted in daily practice.

Healthcare Intelligence NetworkThis post was originally posted on the Healthcare Intelligence Network on July 12, written by Jessica Fornarotto.