The Benefits of Online Health Communities

Online health communities (OHCs) exist for all varieties of chronic diseases and health issues, from cancer-themed groups to simple calorie count forums. Members interact via forums, blogs, chats and other forms of messaging. Some OHCs are stand-alone communities, while others are integrated into social networking or other websites. While OHCs aren't designed to replace healthcare providers, they can be a valuable resource for people seeking assistance in dealing with health issues.

Whether you are looking for yourself or for a friend or family member, consider these potential benefits of OHCs described below.

Man using laptop outside in park
Jovo Jovanovic / Stocksy United

Encouragement and Motivation

Dealing with a chronic health condition takes a physical and mental toll. Are you getting frustrated with dealing with your chronic back pain? Sometimes you need to hear a gentle, encouraging word from someone who understands your situation. Furthermore, online communities can be a great place to learn new habits. We tend to trust people who are like ourselves more than figures of authority. Studies show that when people exchange information about their medical condition through OHCs, this interaction can, in turn, improve their disease management. By following the healthy example of an online peer, patients often adopt better “offline” behaviors that have the potential to improve their condition.

Advice and Information

If you have a specific question about your diagnosis or treatment, consulting with a trusted healthcare provider is still recommended.

However, questions about coping with a health condition might be best answered by fellow patients. For example, what are the best ways to remember to take medications at night?

Or where can you find clothes to wear over an ostomy bag? How can you sleep comfortably with a CPAP mask for sleep apnea? Numerous OHCs are ready to help. Members of OHCs often share how they deal with day-to-day issues from a firsthand perspective.

Success Stories

Nothing is more inspiring than hearing about how somebody else has overcome the same challenges that you are facing. It's even more powerful when that somebody is similar to you. Community members of OHCs frequently review their experiences with different treatment approaches (conventional and alternative). This enables fellow members to not only “observe” what others are attempting but to also “see” the outcomes. Online interactions can be inspirational, leading to the modeling of successful behaviors (as shown in a recent study of arthritis OHCs).

Recognition of Success or Positive Events

A pat on the back for a job well done provides positive reinforcement. If you were able to lose 10 pounds in a healthy way, share this with your new online acquaintances. Or if your CT scan came back negative, fellow patients will breathe a sigh of relief with you.


Sometimes it is helpful to be accountable to others for goals and commitments.

For example, if your goal is to walk 20 minutes a day, then checking in with an online partner can keep you on track.


Sharing stories, encouragement, and advice with people who have had similar experiences can make you feel like part of a group. You are all going through it together. This is especially valuable if you cannot find peers with the same health condition in your local community.


While face-to-face support groups can be helpful, they are only effective to the extent that you can attend the meetings. A major advantage of OHCs is that you can connect with others anywhere you have Internet access.


You might be embarrassed to discuss certain details with family and friends. In joining an OHC, you can limit the amount of personal information you want to disclose. No one needs to know your real name. Feel free to open up.

Note that although the content you post may be anonymous (not linked to your personally identifying information), it may not be private. In open OHCs, other people can view forum posts without joining the community. Keep this in mind when choosing your username, especially if you have the same username on other social networks.

Tangible Support

OHCs are great places for finding out about local "real world" health resources. Members can learn about exercise classes, farmer's markets, highly recommended physicians or research studies that are recruiting participants.

Giving Back

If you've enjoyed the benefits of participating in an OHC, then helping other members can be a rewarding experience. Some members remain active on the site primarily to help others.

If you are able to do so, before joining an OHC, peruse the forums to get a sense of how it might fit your needs. Don't be surprised if most messages are posted by a small group of extremely active members. This 1% rule has been documented in several OHCs.

Also, make sure to follow up with your doctor to verify any conflicting information about your diagnosis and treatment that you encounter on an OHC. Hopefully, you'll be able to better manage your health with a combination of guidance from your doctor and support from OHCs. Countless peer-to-peer communities exist on the internet; for some examples, learn more about the ways your smartphone is now a medical device.

Calorie Count Forums

Many health forums are at least partially devoted to exchanging nutritional information and advice. Groups such as Weight Watchers and MyFitnessPal offer guidance on food choices, caloric intake, and exercise, with the aim of helping you lose weight or maintain health. Different free calorie counters can be accessed online, for example, Cron-o-meter, Lose it! and Spark People. However, a study conducted by Dr. Cheri Levinson and her colleagues from the University of Louisville showed that online calorie trackers and apps can also be associated with eating disorders and can sometimes contribute to eating disorder symptoms. In their study, 73% of those who used a calorie tracker (and had an eating disorder) perceived it as having a negative influence on their condition.

Users of different digital devices and trackers are also often interested in the calorie counting function of their devices and approach forum discussions to find the answers. For instance, they might have difficulty getting an accurate and consistent calorie count. Advice from other forum members, as well as device manufacturers, can be very helpful in helping a user calibrate their understanding of the underlining technology being used.

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  1. Costello R, Jacklin C, Evans MJ, et al. Representativeness of a digitally engaged population and a patient organisation population with rheumatoid arthritis and their willingness to participate in research: a cross-sectional study. RMD Open. 2018;4e000664. doi:10.1136/rmdopen-2018-000664

  2. van Mierlo T. The 1% Rule in Four Digital Health Social Networks: An Observational Study. J Med Internet Res 2014;16(2):e33. Accessed on May 29, 2014.

  3. Levinson C, Fewell L, Brosof L. My Fitness Pal calorie tracker usage in the eating disorders. Eating Behaviors. 2017;27:14-16.

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