Online communities have been around for as long as the internet and many exist which deal with various healthcare related issues. Understanding the impact of these communities and how they can improve the patient's situation can help provide a substantial improvement in patient engagement and in patient outcomes.
The internet is a profoundly unusual medium. On the one hand it provides people with unlimited anonymity, theoretically allowing them to do or say whatever they like without fear of consequence or reprisal. On the other hand, the social nature of the internet and the fact that validation is instant and generally very blatant has turned it into something of a Garden of Eden for narcissists.
While some elements of the social contract (such as manners) are often outrageously disregarded by the internet community, certain other elements of the social contract are actually heightened by the individual's increased reliance on the community for their sense of self.
One element of the social contract which is amplified in online communities is that of responsibility. This was effectively demonstrated in this study which showed that when the individual is asked to commit to a group their sense of responsibility is substantially greater than the sense of responsibility felt when asked to commit to one’s self.
Further within online communities which revolve around common goals, whether shared individual goals or collective goals, the members develop complex relationships in which they begin to depend on one another for various forms of feedback both positive and negative to satisfy psychological needs.
This means that beyond the basic function of information sharing, communities are able to provide active members with validation, recognition, reward and satisfaction. These same psychological triggers are often listed amongst the drivers of continued success in many long-term health maintenance programs.
By leveraging this effect, online communities can provide a natural support mechanism for participants in collective health initiatives aiming at developing more positive habits and generally achieving a more positive lifestyle.
When considering the potential health outcomes of shared programs and broad initiatives this patient-patient relationship can provide a significant boost in engagement and commitment without burdening physicians with the responsibility of being the primary motivational driver.