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Study finds online health communities can help bridge rural-urban divide

by Lisa Chamoff, Contributing Reporter | December 15, 2016
Health IT Population Health
Online health communities can help to close the gap in access to health care resources that exists between rural and urban areas, researchers have found.

In a study recently published by business journal MIS Quarterly, researchers from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business looked at how online communities can create social value by giving patients in rural areas access to health information that they wouldn’t otherwise receive.

The researchers studied an online community focusing on patients suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a rare nervous system disease that weakens the muscles. They collected detailed information on all active users of the community for 44 months, focusing on a group of 638 patients, with 111 patients from rural areas and 527 patients from urban areas.

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Analyzing the patients’ interaction, the researchers found that the patients in urban areas provided information about treatment that is more readily available in urban areas that are better served by specialists, as well as emotional support.

“It is well documented that health disparities exist across urban and rural residents,” Jie Mein Goh, an assistant professor of management information systems with the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in Canada, previously of the University of Maryland, told HCB News. “This is especially true for rare diseases where access to health care resources might be even more challenging for rural residents. This inspired us to connect the two to examine whether an online health community can help to narrow such a health disparity gap. This particular question has not been studied in prior research.”

Looking at health care from a business perspective is also important, as health care spending is close to 1/5 of the gross domestic product in the U.S. and continues to rise, according to Goh.

“This study suggests that much can be done by leveraging and empowering peer patients to help each other,” Goh said. “Online patient communities can be a low-cost complement to the traditional forms of care delivery.”

There are, of course, downsides to health communities, including the risk of misleading information being shared and treatment being delayed.

“Such communities often lack an authentication mechanism which would be very useful to include as a feature,” Goh said.

Goh noted that future research of online health communities could examine whether patients suffering from other diseases can benefit from online communities in the same way as ALS patients, and also what doctors and other health care providers can learn about how patients cope with debilitating conditions.

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