Older people embrace online forums for health support


More older people are looking online for answers to their health problems stemming from chronic conditions, but are they obtaining information and support that helps?

Researchers from Flinders’ Caring Futures Institute have considered this question, recognising that the rapid growth of online health forums is building like-minded communities, but also wondering whether these outlets provide a valuable addition to supplement standard care for older people.

Dr Michael Lawless, a gerontology and health services researcher at Flinders University’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences, worked with a team examining how older people use these online health forums and was surprised by what they discovered.

Michael Lawless

“Engaging with an online forum validated quite a lot of questions from people with chronic health conditions about the things they are experiencing,” says Dr Lawless. “We didn’t really see any provision of mis-information in this space. It was more that people provided essential support to each other.

“It’s an important time to be examining this. With better broadband access, plus the increased use of smartphones and online devices, older people are adopting social media at the fastest rate across any age group – so we wanted to investigate the social processes and outcomes for people who have started plugging into these online communities.

“We found that these online communities appear to be an important source of peer support and information and may be a cost-effective approach to supplement standard care.”

The researchers analysed almost 700 health-related posts in a publicly-accessible online community that is specifically designed for older people. Such online peer-to-peer communities provide environments in which people with similar health concerns can interact and exchange information that can support self-care of chronic conditions.

In examining the online message boards and forums, the researchers identified three distinct types of people who were engaging with self-care support channels. These were – the “support seekers” who wanted help by describing their problems and requesting information; the “empathisers” who described their similar experiences and offered emotional support; and the “influencers” who were actively trying to provide information or advice.

The significance of this research was amplified during COVID-19, when people were less able to access the types of health networks, health care providers and support groups that they usually engage with. This saw a much larger number of older people turn to online resources.

The researchers also found that people using the forums extended their conversations to reach beyond primary health issues, to also address issues such as their struggles through not being able to connect with family during COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions.

“We observed the discussions without interfering,” explains Dr Lawless, “but we are suggesting that because so many older people are now gravitating towards these types of health discussion forums, there may be a role for experienced health care professionals to act as moderators in such discussions, to provide more informed medial information as an addition to the forum conversations.”

Dr Lawless says the types of emotional support and validation provided by older people participating in the online health forums is to be encouraged. “Our findings suggest that online communities can serve as a valuable source of emotional support and provide tacit knowledge not readily available in clinical encounters,” he says.

“We believe such platforms may be a cost-effective approach to supplement usual health care activities.

“I can see a role for established medicine to therefore encourage older patients to get in touch with online communities, as a valuable addition to their existing health services.”

Dr Lawless says this research serves as an important first step in examining the value and use of online health communities, with the next step needing to more closely examine the mechanisms of how older people manage their own health after obtaining online advice, and help provide a roadmap to best navigate this rapidly expanding area of health support.

The research – “You Are By No Means Alone: A Netnographic Study of Self-Care Support in an Online Community for Older Adults,” by Michael Lawless, Sarah Hunter, Maria Alejandra Pinero de Plaza, Mandy Archibald and Alison Kitson, has been published in the journal Qualitative Health Research. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/10497323221124979



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