Maybe it started with WebMD, a site on which one can input his or her symptoms and identify their possible causes. Easy, fairly accurate and quick, WebMD provides instant gratification and helps users determine what might be wrong with them and how to rectify it.
With information at their fingertips – as opposed to scheduling a doctor’s appointment, waiting for it to take place and possibly having to sit tight until test results returned – the sick started taking command of their health by thinking and acting proactively.
Nearly 15 years after the online enterprise’s debut, Americans are taking an even stronger command of their health due to the digital development of software applications that offer databases, forums, networking opportunities and public platforms, on which to find, share and track information.
According to a Pew Research Internet Project report, one-quarter of adults surveyed said, during bouts with an illness, they voluntarily reached out online to others facing a similar illness and, further, read a post or watched a video about those experiences with the condition. The report also said 16 percent of adults surveyed headed to the computer to connect with those with a similar illness and communicate concerns.
“For this reason and others, online patient communities (AKA peer-to-peer health communities) have been steadily rising in use over the last decade because they connect a wide spectrum of chronic illness and disease sufferers and from all walks of life and geographies,” wrote Ray Manna, a digital-marketing consultant, in an article on LinkedIn.
There are more significant statistics from the Pew report, including the fact that eight percent of Internet users surveyed posted comments / questions and / or shared experiences / stories about their personal health. What’s more interesting – and revealing – is that, of those eight percent, close to half said they posted comments, nearly 20 percent said they posted questions, and 38 percent said they did both.
Finally, 78 percent said they did any or all of the above “to reach a general audience of friends….”
“In these extended networks patients will confide to others in ways that are sometimes difficult to share with their closest family members and friends,” Manna wrote, adding that many adults believe family and friends, as well as patients they’ve met online, are a better source of information than doctors.
Online patient communities, known by the acronym OPC, are populating the Internet at a fast pace to meet a newfound demand for peer-to-peer communique. Whether someone has diabetes, heart disease, high-blood pressure or high cholesterol, or a rare disease such as ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), there is a need for sufferers to spread and word.
“These insights illuminate perhaps the greatest strengths of online health communities: far-reaching, real-time and documented patient transparency,” Manna wrote. “Patient-populated timelines (particularly on PatientsLikeMe), provide information on health events and symptoms due to an illness, mood, prescribed treatments, treatment adherence and dosage. Specific OPC’s may provide opportunities for appropriate and meaningful value exchange, mostly as important test-beds for developing new health care products and services.”