J Am Med Inform Assoc 18:298-304 doi:10.1136/amiajnl-2010-000058
  • Research and applications

Information seeking and social support in online health communities: impact on patients' perceived empathy

  1. Priya Nambisan1,2
  1. 1Department of Health Policy, Management and Behavior, School of Public Health, University at Albany, SUNY, New York, USA
  2. 2Department of Informatics, College of Computing and Information, University at Albany, SUNY, New York, USA
  1. Correspondence to Assistant Professor Priya Nambisan, Department of Health Policy, Management and Behavior, School of Public Health, University at Albany, SUNY, 1 University Place, Rensselaer, NY 12144, USA; pnambisan{at}
  • Received 15 April 2010
  • Accepted 7 February 2011


Objective Many healthcare organizations (HCOs) including Kaiser Permanente, Johns Hopkins, Cleveland Medical Center, and MD Anderson Cancer Center, provide access to online health communities as part of their overall patient support services. The key objective in establishing and running these online health communities is to offer empathic support to patients. Patients' perceived empathy is considered to be critical in patient recovery, specifically, by enhancing patient's compliance with treatment protocols and the pace of healing. Most online health communities are characterized by two main functions: informational support and social support. This study examines the relative impact of these two distinct functions—that is, as an information seeking forum and as a social support forum—on patients' perceived empathy in online health communities.

Design This study tests the impact of two variables that reflect the above functions of online health communities—information seeking effectiveness and perceived social support—on perceived empathy. The model also incorporates the potential moderating effect of homophily on these relationships.

Measurements A web-based survey was used to collect data from members of the online health communities provided by three major healthcare centers. A regression technique was used to analyze the data to test the hypotheses.

Results The study finds that it is the information seeking effectiveness rather than the social support which affects patient's perceived empathy in online health communities run by HCOs. The results indicate that HCOs that provide online health communities for their patients need to focus more on developing tools that will make information seeking more effective and efficient.


  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval This study was approved by the institutional review board at the University at Albany, SUNY (protocol number 08-066).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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