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Research shows social networks for patients can kick-start service innovation

6 June 2016

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Online communities are improving patient care through shared knowledge of healthcare services and prescription drugs, a study has found.

The study, Creating Value in Online Communities: The Sociomaterial Configuring of Strategy, Platform, and Stakeholder Engagement, from the Warwick Business School found that sites like HealthUnlocked and Mumsnet are helping people cope with chronic illnesses like diabetes and mental health.

The researchers found a critical need for patient support in managing these illnesses and discovered that they were finding this level of care outside the system, in online communities.

However, not only is this beneficial for patients, it also creates a pool of resources for healthcare providers and other companies.

Eivor Oborn, professor of health care management at Warwick Business School and one of the study’s researchers, said: “These online communities are providing critical social support for others.

“This is also supported by a policy environment where the Government wants patients to be empowered and more accountable for their own health.

“Creating value from patients’ own experiential knowledge is one of the untapped areas of managing chronic disease.”

The four-year study of a start-up social network for patients found that online communities held different values for healthcare investors, from rating services, connecting people and companies, tracking patients and profiling them.

Besides support, patients contributed to medical research and design by reporting their outcomes from different treatments, which can help medical providers and pharmaceutical firms, and improve outreach programmes.

“We wanted to see how the millions of user contributions on these online communities can be used to help GPs and hospital doctors,” said Oborn.

She added: “By developing health trackers and getting patients to track their illness on these online communities this improves and speeds up the type of care clinicians can offer. 

“Analytics allows you to understand in precise detail the symptoms of different patients and the effectiveness of different drugs for each type of patient.

“Also, the power in these online communities to identify and attract relevant patients for clinical trials of new drugs is dramatic. 

“For example, health organisations took almost six months to recruit 250 people by traditional means whereas it took one of these online communities just 48 hours.”