Help Physicians Change Patients’ Behavior With Online Communities

By Jean Kelso Sandlin, Senior Strategist

Physicians plead, cajole, encourage and nag patients into healthier behaviors. They want their hip replacement patients to begin to walk more, new moms to breastfeed and diabetics to monitor their blood sugar. What if you could help them by creating clusters of online communities that would promote the adoption of healthy habits and help change patient behavior? Now you can.

Thanks to researchers at MIT, there’s new information that can help design online communities that are more conducive to changing patient behaviors. According to “The Spread of Behavior in an Online Social Network Experiment,” published in the Sept. 3, 2010 issue of the journal Science, people are more likely to acquire new health practices while living in networks with dense clusters of connections — that is, when in close contact with people they already know well.

Researcher Damon Centola experimented with an internet-based health community. He formed both large and small groups. To form the smaller clusters, he matched participants by interests and assigned them “health buddies.” The clustered groups with health buddies had a much higher rate for adopting healthy behaviors. For example, 54% registered for a health forum as compared to only 38% of those in larger networks without health buddies.

Creating these small, supportive social network clusters online could improve patient outcomes. Although they are less efficient in spreading information, the participants receive the same information multiple times–a characteristic the researchers call redundancy. This redundancy is key because changing ingrained habits requires extra reinforcement. People need to hear a new idea multiple times before making a change.

Now that you know that small groups are key: consider two factors; the patients for whom a behavior change is desirable for their healing or overall health and how to best foster communication. If you have a senior cardiac group, they may prefer email; but a new mom’s club may be comfortable with Twitter.  Creating small clusters can be as simple as developing an email list, Facebook group page, a Linked-in group, or using Twitter’s hashmark ID system to create a group following method. You can also create a more customized experience with internal patient portals. Click here to read about Centola’s study and the implications for designing online health communities.

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