Online Communities and Learning for Health : The Use of Online Health Communities and Online Expertise for People with Established Bad Habits

University dissertation from Kista : Institutionen för data- och systemvetenskap (tills m KTH)

Abstract: Patients as well as citizens are getting more and more empowered due to the use of the Internet. The last years have brought a new trend to the Internet, the virtual or online health communities, used by many people and for various purposes. This thesis draws a certain attention to online health communities that target issues related to established bad or unhealthy habits. Empirical studies of health communities for people who suffer from overweight, smoking, alcohol and drug abuse have been done. Posted issues and patterns of conversations were studied and analyzed from a learning perspective. Online health communities on the Net Doctor sites in Sweden, Denmark and the United Kingdom were included in the studies conducted between 2003 and 2007.Net sites for health services allow also patients and citizens to communicate online with health professionals. In the second half of the thesis, a holistic approach that considers the relations between the usage of health communities and ‘Ask the Expert’ systems is presented. Results from comparative studies of the two types of systems for overweight people on the Swedish Net Doctor site are discussed.The results indicate that users of the studied online health communities on different established bad habits showed great willingness to share experiences and to express sympathy. Different positions, on the other hand, were more seldom used in the conversations. Since most examples of different positions were expressed in a neutral way or combined with empathy, the conversations would probably be able to use this sort of response acts more frequently without jeopardizing community bonds. From a learning perspective, this could be beneficial for the users. When online health communities were compared with ‘Ask the Expert’ system for people with overweight, the two types of systems were characterized by different and complementary strengths. Finally, some guidelines for how to design holistic health systems in the future are suggested.

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