Virtual Communities Provide Real Support

Is it a cold? The flu? Do I need antibiotics? 

We often Google our symptoms instead of calling the doctor. We also use the Internet to find information on more serious health issues, like cancer.

Official websites, such as the American Cancer Society, offer information, but for answers to specific questions, many turn to online communities. They hope to connect with people who can provide firsthand experience and honest answers. 

Associate Professor InduShobha Chengalur-Smith is exploring how cancer patients use online communities to exchange information about their disease and treatment. She said, “I am fascinated by how communities coalesce around technology.” 

In their research, Dr. Chengalur-Smith and her colleagues studied internet discussion boards for cancer patients. She found that besides supplying information, these boards offer support. 

Discussion board contributors genuinely worried about supplying the correct information. If they were not sure of the answer, they admitted it, and substituted emotional support. Chengalur-Smith said, “You don’t have to be an expert for that.” 

Although these virtual communities provide a platform for people to exchange information and support, Chengalur-Smith was surprised to find that online healthcare communities often play a more important role in providing companionship. Discussion boards are sustained by their dedicated communities. Many stayed connected after their questions were answered and treatment ended. Dr. Chengalur-Smith observed a sense of reciprocity. Those who were helped when they were sick and helpless felt grateful and wanted to pay it forward. 

Can you trust the information you find in virtual communities? Dr. Chengalur-Smith and her fellow researchers cannot guarantee that, but they can tell you that the online emotional support and friendship is real. They hope that their research will help to design online portals to help users further exploit these channels of information and support.

The Research and the Researchers

Not Just for Support: Companionship Activities in Healthcare Virtual Support Communities

Kuang-Yuan Huang, McGill University
InduShobha Chengalur-Smith, University at Albany
Weija Ran, University at Albany
Published in 2014 in the Communications of the Association for Information Systems, volume 34, article 29 


Investigating the Drivers of Social Support in Healthcare Virtual Communities: A Social Capital Perspective
Kuang-Yuan Huang, Excelsior College
InduShobha Chengalur-Smith, University at Albany
Alain Pinsonneault, McGill University