The Internet and social media are revolutionizing how social support is exchanged and perceived, making online health communities (OHCs) one of the most exciting research areas in health informatics. This paper aims to provide a framework for organizing research of OHCs and help identify questions to explore for future informatics research. Based on the framework, we conceptualize OHCs from a social support standpoint and identify variables of interest in characterizing community members. For the sake of this tutorial, we focus our review on online cancer communities.
The primary target audience is informaticists interested in understanding ways to characterize OHCs, their members, and the impact of participation, and in creating tools to facilitate outcome research of OHCs. OHC designers and moderators are also among the target audience for this tutorial.
The tutorial provides an informatics point of view of online cancer communities, with social support as their leading element. We conceptualize OHCs according to 3 major variables: type of support, source of support, and setting in which the support is exchanged. We summarize current research and synthesize the findings for 2 primary research questions on online cancer communities: (1) the impact of using online social support on an individual's health, and (2) the characteristics of the community, its members, and their interactions. We discuss ways in which future research in informatics in social support and OHCs can ultimately benefit patients.
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