Anyone who's gone through a difficult time knows the importance of a strong support system. For many individuals today, especially those who have chronic diseases, online communities are serving the role of that support system. The ability to connect with people going through similar experiences across the world is just as powerful if it was face-to-face.
The benefits that these communities provide, go beyond just providing resources and information. Social workers are encouraged and motivated by the joy and comfort that online communities can provide vulnerable populations. Online communities are an effective way to :
- Build personal relationships and networks of trust.
- Bring together people with common interests or profiles.
- Engage these specific groups of people.
Connecting People Together
These connections can be the difference between life and death. The main benefit of social media for such users is finding people going through similar circumstances so that they can share experiences, find encouragement, and ultimately feel less alone. This is extremely common for users with illnesses and health problems.
Some people turn to specific community sites that help foster these relationships, such as Patients LIke Me, an online community that helps connect patients suffering from various conditions to each other so they don’t feel alone. For other people, Facebook is enough of a platform to find people going through similar experiences.
Though emotional support and education is a big way that social media is helping sick users cope, there are more practical benefits as well. Crowdfunding campaigns for expensive medical procedures have skyrocketed in the past few years, showing how communities are being used to pool resources and support in times of need.
Where most people only interact with colleagues and close friends during the week, a message gets pushed out to all of someone's "friends"-- often over a thousand users. This kind of wide reach allows people to fundraise easily and effectively.
Reducing Cost of Inpatient Care
Another huge benefit to online health communities is the spreading of knowledge between those with similar health problems. The value of the education achieved by online forums is life saving, and has huge potential cost savings as well considering how important a strong foundation of knowledge is for a patient to avoid dangerous and costly missteps when managing an illness like diabetes.
Hospitals can see cost savings of $8.5M per year through education alone, by being proactive in connecting with online communities. According to one report on diabetes patients, 1 in 3 patients, forum participation can reduce blood glucose levels. Just a 1% reduction in blood glucose level can help reduce heart failure by 16%. This may be why participation in such online communities is growing so rapidly.
As many doctors are being overworked and are under pressure to provide healthcare with limited resources, self-serve communities can also help with freeing their valuable time. Having someone work with patient and making them aware of all possible options, helps a patient stick to a particular care program. A forum can be extremely valuable in helping the patient be aware of treatment options.
Health organizations need to engage with self-support communities as their involvement can prevent misinformation and new ideas can be heard. These forums are a great environment to positively affect attitudes by allowing health professionals, patients and their families to interact with each other in a safe environment.
Protecting privacy and building credibility
Granted, health is a sensitive subject for many, especially when it comes to confidentiality issues. Users should be concerned how their data is being used online, and by whom. It's vital that trust is built through transparency on how users' data is being used.
Sometimes communities can be an effective way to break addictions, whether through online drug and alcohol addiction support programs or weight loss programs. When users are online, they are in a place of anonymity, and this can help foster outreach for things that they normally would not feel comfortable asking for help with.
Not only that, it’s also convenient. Men in particular are able to benefit from the use of online communities to break addictions, because of their more independent way of coping with issues and reluctance to ask for help.
Identifying Warning Signs
One of the most important ways that communities can save lives is by exposing troubled youth and adults before they hurt themselves. Suicide and bullying are at the forefront of concerning issues facing youth in the United States today, and though social media has been known to aggravate these issues, it can also end up saving lives.
School related programs are using social media to monitor their students for potential warning signs of bullying or suicide. For many people, social media is a place where they are more vulnerable and share things that they might not feel comfortable sharing face-to-face. This can be used as a resource for those who are looking out for warning signs in troubled loved ones.
The connectivity that social media provides can be used to bring people together, to provide help to those who need it most, and to keep us connected and informed. This is why social media can be not only a life changing, but a lifesaving tool.