Can Online Communities Enhance Health Education?

by Ian Roberts

The internet is a world of paradox, extremes and contradictions and the world of online health are not exempt. On the one hand, people may spend less time physically interacting with each other, sitting crouched in front of a screen staring at web pages for hours on end – which, as this infographic shows, is bad for our health.

But on the other hand, the internet is a portal to an almost unlimited range of health-related content – opening up a wealth of opportunities for people to learn about health and meet other like-minded people.

It also provides a way to access information previously restricted to the medical community and to connect with others looking for answers to specific health problems.  From how to do the perfect squat, an online yoga class, a recipe for a quick and healthy meal, to the side effects of a prescribed medication, how our body works, an ancient alternative medicine or a chat room for a rare genetic condition, it’s all there.

Just a couple of decades ago, what the doctor said was accepted as gospel, and there were few easy ways to learn about how the body works. Now a patient can go to their doctor already informed about their condition, allowing patients to be more involved in the decision making process. If a patient is unhappy with the treatment received they can go online and search for other available treatment options. A patient who has not found the answer within mainstream medicine can research alternative options and talk to other sufferers who have found a solution and those who prefer to avoid mainstream medicine completely can find others with similar preferences.

The internet can help expand ways of thinking, opening minds to new possibilities and options.  But with more than 3 billion results in a Google search for the word ‘health’ the issue quickly becomes: who can we trust? How do we know which information is safe, accurate and reliable? Given the law of averages, there will be some pretty crazy stuff out there in the ether!

And there’s a darker side to the internet. Corporations and other vested interest groups pay websites to actively push their agenda and this is just as prevalent in the world of health as it is in the world of politics, energy, agriculture or any other major issue of our time.  A vested interest group like the pharmaceutical industry, for example, spends tens of millions of pounds a year promoting its opinion on controversial issues across a wide variety of websites.

Perhaps we need to begin to look at the internet in a different way and consciously ask ourselves questions about the websites we visit.  We should read the About pages, online reviews, and the Comments sections.  The quality of the information, its layout on the page and even spelling mistakes send subliminal messages that can undermine trust.

In this context, the online community plays a crucial role in our decision-making. If someone we already know and trust recommends a website through an online community, or even on Twitter and Facebook we are much more likely to visit that site and take account of the contents. Over time we build a trusted group of sources that we regularly visit for our health needs.

And all that said, with more people suffering from chronic diseases than ever before the internet still offers the potential for a monumental shift in the nation’s health. Not just in terms of specific information and treatment options, but more importantly, prevention and taking increasing responsibility for our own health.

Ultimately, like most things in life, the internet is not intrinsically good or bad – it’s all about how we use it.