A new study evaluates whether social networking sites help individuals make better health decisions.

Researchers say the answer depends on people’s willingness to take action on the information they gain from the sites.

According to background information in the article, using social networking sites to obtain health information and advice is controversial.

Critics cite the unstructured format and lack of credentialed content as potential sources of inaccurate or confusing information. Also, the sites may steer individuals away from receiving necessary medical care.

Proponents value the consumeristic approach to health care as individuals are empowered to take responsibility for their health. Importantly, the sites provide a vehicle to deliver support and reinforcement from an online network.

In the study, authors Rama K. Jayanti (Cleveland State University) and Jagdip Singh (Case Western Reserve University) closely monitored use of an electronic bulletin board dedicated to thyroid disease and treatment over the course of ten months.

Based on random selection, they analyzed six threads representing 392 distinct postings with 7,825 text lines by 80 unique individuals. They sought to determine if consumers can learn from these sites, how they learn, and how the learning empowers them.

In general, they found many benefits to using online communities for health advice. A three-stage process of reflecting, refining, and exploring is the key to effective use of the online sites, they say. The value of the online community is that it “facilitates learning by collectively transforming everyday individual experiences into usable knowledge,” they write.

“We found that the community can collectively enable learning for individual members who often fail and falter on their own.” By sharing their experiences, participants enlarge their repertoire of actions that affect their health.

“Together these characteristics transformed helpless individuals into empowered patients who effortlessly changed physicians, switched medications, and modified diets.”

However, the value of online community depends on how individuals choose to act on the information.

“Productive inquiry alone is not sufficient to empower individuals,” the authors write.

“Community inquiry broadens the action choices available to its members. Action, however, is an individual choice.”

The authors advise policymakers to lead the way in promoting learning in social communities so that consumers can empower themselves for informed decision-making and a better quality of life.

Source: University of Chicago