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Research reveals healing power of social networking

Researchers at the University of Washington Foster School of Business have found the first measurable evidence that networking over the Internet improves a patient’s health condition.

Co-authors Professor Yong Tan and Foster School PhD student Lu Yan tracked individuals interacting via a prominent health care community website. “We found that patients benefit from learning from others who share their condition,” says Yan. “Their participation in the online community helps them improve their health conditions and better engage in their disease self-management process.”

New means of therapy

Until recently, the bulk of substantive interactions concerning health care occurred between doctor and patient, a largely one-way flow of information.

Early mainstreaming of the Internet gave life to sites such as WebMD.com that offer information from expert sources. Seeing the rising interest in health care information on the Web, the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention opened virtual offices in Second Life, the popular alternative cyber-society.

Recent introduction of more interactive health care sites—part of the Web 2.0 rise in user-generated content—have altered the equation, democratized discussions and flows of information regarding personal health topics. Do such interactions do any good?

Observing the unobservable

To find out, Yan and Tan examined users of a site where patients create their own health profiles, track their health information and interact with others who are dealing with similar conditions. For this study, the authors observed a community of people suffering from depression.

Logging online interactions was easy; linking social networking with patient outcomes required significantly more finesse in the form of a Partially Observed Markov Decision Process. “Typically your state of health is unobservable,” says Tan, an associate professor of information systems. “But we developed a stochastic process where we make inferences based on what we can see and what is communicated via social networking.”

What they found is that interactions in online health communities provide information, emotional support and self-identification, all of which help patients progress to a healthier state. Though information is the major support that patients seek and provide online, the authors found that emotional support plays the largest role in helping patients move to a better condition.

In addition to measurably improving an individual’s condition, Tan says that participation in online health community networking creates a positive feedback loop: “The resulting improvement in health also increases an individual’s contribution back to the online community to improve the health of others.”

Health care system and patient needs

As the sprawling U.S. health care system struggles to deliver world-class health care while keeping costs in check, Yan believes that efforts to achieve positive outcomes more efficiently and economically should be embraced. Still, many health care providers have voiced concerns about the privacy of online health communities, and that seeking information from inexpert sources results in misinformation that is counterproductive to healing.

Her study’s findings suggest otherwise. Information technology provides a global platform for humans to do what humans do best: connect. Any time, anywhere, with anyone who cares. And it appears that connection improves conditions.

“We demonstrate that patients participating in online health communities are contributing to a more efficient delivery of health care,” Yan says. “The health care industry is in transition. In the past, patients had no role in their treatment. Now patients are increasingly taking an active role. Participating in social networking helps them improve their condition, and in turn provides support and encouragement to other patients to improve their condition.”

Feel Blue so Go Online: An Empirical Study of Online Supports among Patients” is the work of Lu Yan and Yong Tan of the University of Washington Foster School of Business.