Author: Inmaculada Grau Corral
Programme: Doctoral Programme on the Information and Knowledge Society
Supervisor: Dr Manuel Castells Oliván
Faculty / Institute: Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3)
Subjects: Sociology, Social Psychology, Health, Communication, Internet
Key words: Virtual communities, Communication in healthcare, e-health, Sociology, Social psychology, Health, Communication, Internet
Area of knowledge: Sociology
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Objective: The aim of this research is to test the hypothesis that "Virtual communities of patients are a useful support for chronically ill patients, complementing personalized clinical care". To test that hypothesis a qualitative and quantitative research will be carried out on the Hospital Clinic de Barcelona webpage, forumclinic.
Methodology: The first step was to establish an analytical framework using multidisciplinary resources. This was followed by a selection of empirical evidence on the subject. Then two lines of research were developed/carried out. One was a qualitative study, using anthropological techniques of participant observation and collecting data directly from the website. Four forums were chosen for a more quantitative analysis, and to explore their usefulness, two sub-types were identified: forums that worked as a "health clinic" and those that operated as a "virtual community". All content and messages received over a five-month period in 2009 were examined and classified.
Results: The findings of the qualitative study confirm the hypothesis. The contents, forum use, the readership, and the behaviour of the participants under study all point to the usefulness of patient forums. Those forums with a virtual community were especially significant. The second, the quantitative line of research gave the same result. Of the users who replied to the survey, 80.93% gave a positive evaluation of the forum's usefulness (30.62% very positive and 45.21% quite positive). When forum content was classified and compared (virtual community vs. health clinic) significant differences were found. The health clinic forums operated predominantly on a question-answer basis, focused on the illness itself. In virtual community forums, shared experiences predominated, touching on emotional and pragmatic aspects of the illness as well as its physiology.
Conclusions: It could be seen, in the virtual communities under study, that processes of social learning were taking place, as users learnt from the example of their peers.