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Are virtual communities good for our health?

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.332.7547.925 (Published 20 April 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:925

Rapid Response:

Virtual Communities – Definitely a big step forward

Editor- The explosive increase in the health related information on
the internet and the number of health related online communities has not
only increased the awareness levels amongst common people but also helped
the healthcare professionals.

The online interactive group activities or virtual communities fall
into two major categories from a medical point of view. First is a group
of professionals who actively seek each other and share authentic
information. Professionals from one part of the world with expertise in
one particular field share their experience with people from other parts
of the world. Interaction can be purely unilateral e.g. expert review of
pathology slides and X-rays of cancer patients, or it can be bilateral
e.g. group of intensivists discussing the practices at their institutes.
These groups also provide a cheap, fast and reliable mode of sharing
relevant information or knowledge for the clinicians who often find it
difficult to spare enough time from their busy schedules to attend
conferences or courses in order to keep themselves up to date. Not to
mention the cost of these events.

Second is the group of people who run into each other online because
they share a common health problem e.g. cancer, infertility etc. They are
anxious, not necessarily well informed and most vulnerable to accept or
disperse information which is unauthenticated. I agree the information
shared in these groups can often be incorrect1 but most of these patients
are well supported in the community by virtue of their condition, others
who seek information just out of interest make it a point to discuss it
with their healthcare providers. In either case false information gets
rectified. Major benefit of these groups as rightly mentioned by Jadad et
al.2 is the extent of psychological support these groups provide to their
members in coming to terms with their illnesses by interacting with people
having similar problems. Ability to maintain complete anonymity is an
added advantage for some. Carers also benefit from these groups as much as
the patients themselves e.g. relatives of patients with schizophrenia.

Already a significant component of patient doctor interaction
involves computers and the internet and it is easy to predict a future,
not too far, where every hospital website would be a highly interactive
online community, and computers & internet will be indispensable for
an efficient health care service. With the changing clinical governance
framework it is essential that every healthcare provider has significant
working knowledge of computers and internet in order to be an efficient
part the system.

References

1.Esquivel A, Meric-Bernstam F, Bernstam EV. Accuracy and self
correction of information received from an internet breast cancer list:
content analysis. BMJ 2006; 332:939-42.

2.Alejandro R Jadad, Murray W Enkin, Sholom Glouberman, Philip Groff,
Anita Stern. Are virtual communities good for our health? BMJ 2006;
332:925-926.

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

26 April 2006
Vivek Kakar
SHO Anaesthesia
Rashmi Kumar
Southmead hospital, Bristol BS10 5NB