The Interpersonal Dimension of Online Patient Forums: How Patients Manage Informational and Relational Aspects in Response to Posted Questions
The internet has revolutionised the ways in which patients acquire medical information, a development which has clearly been welcomed by patients: seeking out health information online is now the third most popular activity after internet searches and e-mail (Timimi 2012). However, it has led to concerns about the quality of the information, the ability of lay people to understand it (Gerber/Eiser 2001) as well as potential cyberchondria (Starcevic/Berle 2013). In light of these conflicting perspectives, this paper examines one such source of online information, namely, the patient forum where patients communicate with other patients about a particular medical condition. Although doctor-patient communication in the clinical situation has been extensively researched, little is known about how patient-patient communication is managed in online situations such as patient forums. The purpose of this paper is to contribute to research in that relatively un-researched area by examining how patients manage relational and informational aspects of communication in online patient forums. Whilst a typical interactional structure of the patient forum exchange is question and answer, we focus on responses to questions on patient forums.
This paper reports on the findings of a thematic analysis (Braun/Clarke 2006) of an online thyroid disease patient forum, investigating how interpersonal aspects are negotiated where patients share condition-related knowledge. We identify themes that relate both to informational and relational aspects as well as themes that fit under a new category which we call ‘info-relational’ as it subsumes informational and relational elements. We discuss a number of theoretical implications, which are valuable as existing health communication models and understandings of patient expertise have yet to catch up with the effects of new media such as online patient forums.
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