The diffusion of virtual communities in health care: concepts and challenges

George Demiris
Patient Education and Counseling 2006, 62 (2): 178-88

OBJECTIVE: This paper providers an overview and discussion of virtual communities in health care. Furthermore, we aim to discuss in this context ethical, legal and technical considerations and the current status of research in this domain.

METHODS: We searched medical and social science literature including survey studies, randomized and non-randomized controlled interventions and reviews.

RESULTS: The literature indicates that a virtual community in health care as a group of people using telecommunication with the purposes of delivering health care and education, and/or providing support, covers a wide range of clinical specialties, technologies and stakeholders. Examples include peer-to-peer networks, virtual health care delivery and research teams. Ethical challenges including the concepts of identity and deception, privacy and confidentiality and technical issues, such as sociability and usability are discussed.

CONCLUSION: Virtual communities may empower patients and enhance coordination of care services; however, there is not sufficient systematic evidence of the effectiveness of virtual communities on clinical outcomes or patient empowerment. Researchers need to address issues, such as sample sizes and experimental design to further the research field in this domain.

PRACTICE IMPLICATIONS: When practitioners utilize virtual community tools to communicate with patients or colleagues they have to maximize sociability and usability of this mode of communication, while addressing concerns for privacy and the fear of de-humanizing practice, and the lack of clarity or relevance of current legislative frameworks.

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