How Online Health and Wellness Communities Are Changing Healthcare for the Better
May 11, 2017
Healthcare has always had a big social component. For every moment we spend consulting medical professionals, we spend countless more hours reaching out to friends, family members and fellow patients for advice and support. That makes sense: we can’t run to the doctor every time we have a question or concern. Traditional institutional healthcare is too expensive and resource-limited to address all the health-related issues we confront on a daily basis. If we really want to make informed medical decisions, practice healthy living, cope with illnesses and manage chronic conditions, we have to rely in large part on informal networks for guidance.
But who exactly should we turn to, and who can we trust? Where can we engage with experts and fellow patients? How do we distinguish authoritative sources from inaccurate or outdated ones – or outright quackery?
It isn’t easy. The internet is overflowing with information, but much of it is contradictory, hard to interpret or just plain wrong. People searching the web for medical wisdom often come away more confused or worried than when they started. Self-diagnosis via Google has generated so much anxiety that we now have a word for the condition: cyberchondria – imaginary ailments and excessive fears stoked by internet research. Worse yet, bogus cures and snake oil salesmen abound online, waiting to take advantage of the unwary.
A trusted source
That’s why health and wellness communities have become such a welcome addition to the digital healthcare landscape, providing trusted destinations for health information, expert advice and social support. Reputable communities offer the safety and institutional oversight of traditional medical consultation, along with the convenience and economy of online self-service. They provide answers and guidance on a variety of day-to-day health concerns, ranging from diet and exercise to medication use and chronic disease management. They encourage healthy lifestyle choices and provide practical tips and emotional support for patients and families confronting major and minor medical challenges.
Health and wellness communities provide a much-needed supplement to traditional healthcare channels and to specialized digital systems such as patient portals. Whereas patient portals enable official transactions and provider-patient communications (scheduling appointments, refilling prescriptions, accessing health records and claims information, making payments, etc.), health and wellness communities are designed for a wider array of informal activities: from self-serve research and education to knowledge-sharing and social interaction. A typical community might include a mix of curated information resources, expert Q&A, peer support groups, structured activities and personalized wellness programs.
By empowering consumers and patients to make better decisions on their own, health and wellness communities improve overall well-being and decrease reliance on more costly forms of medical care. No wonder these communities have proliferated in recent years. There are now hundreds of them, operated by healthcare providers, employers, insurers and non-profits. Some communities are designed to help people cope with particular conditions (e.g., diabetes, asthma, drug dependency, breast cancer); some are aimed at driving behavioral changes (like smoking cessation or healthier eating); some are used to foster participation in employer- or insurer-sponsored wellness programs that motivate and reward healthy practices; some are one-stop-shops for all of the above.
What makes a great community?
While health and wellness communities vary widely, the best of them have a number of things in common:
- Highly engaging and easy to use: Great experiences keep members involved and coming back.
- Easy navigation and search: Users can quickly find accurate information and helpful resources through a combination of intuitive navigation, powerful search and clear designation of community experts, official content and best answers.
- Rich content and interactions: Communities should be more than mere knowledge bases and forums, providing a wide array of content and interactions including articles, blogs, videos, Q&A, public and private discussions, support groups, one-to-one communications and more.
- Highly personalized: Content, experiences and recommendations are matched to each user’s needs, history and preferences.
- Proactive communications: Personalized activity streams and newsfeeds, notifications, reminders and email news updates keep users on track with their programs and informed on topics of interest.
- Desktop and mobile access: Users have can access and participate in the community via any device.
- Secure and private: Communities provide robust security features and comply with applicable regulations such as HIPAA, offering a full range of controls to protect user privacy and (when desired) anonymity.
- Robust moderation: Administers can screen and manage user content to ensure appropriate, accurate information and patient confidentiality.
- Built-in game mechanics: Structured missions and rewards incentivize behaviors such as participation in health programs.
- Integration with external systems and devices: Integration with popular personal fitness tracking devices (e.g., from Fitbit and Garmin), enables participants in wellness programs to automatically capture their activity data.
- Advanced analytics: Community manager get the data-driven insight they need to monitor, manage and increase participation and engagement.
Combining all those features may sound like a tall order, requiring a massive investment in web development and IT effort, but it’s not nearly as imposing as it sounds – not with advanced community platforms that provide all the necessary capabilities out of the box. With some simple configuration and little or no customization, organizations can set up and launch best-of-breed communities quickly and cost-effectively.
Better outcomes for everyone
Health and wellness communities have something for everyone. Healthcare providers love them because they result in happier, healthier patients while lightening the load on overburdened medical systems. Insurers love them because they reduce claims, and employers because they lead to lower premiums, fewer sick days and a more productive workforce. At a point when the healthcare system desperately needs new ways to improve care while reining in costs, health and wellness communities are clearly an idea whose time has come.
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