Why Should Healthcare Providers Research Online? | MDRG

Why Should Healthcare Providers Research Online?

Stephanie McGehee

Director, Marketing and Operations

As researchers, our data collection methods need to keep up with the pace of technological innovation, as well as human behavior changes that develop because of new technology. Our blog previously approached this topic by showcasing our work using mobile ethnography, a method capitalizing on the increasing familiarity and comfort consumers have with mobile technology.

We also strive to keep pace with the increasing use of online spaces as meaningful intersections of social contact. To explore online spaces, we conduct ethnographic analysis of material extracted from online communities, blogs, and social media.

Benefits of online approaches include:

  • Access to hard to reach populations (geographically or in terms of how marginal the topic is)
  • No recruitment phase (as participants are already discussing the topic of interest)
  • Minimal impact of research processes on results (as answers arise in previously existing contexts)
  • Rapid access to massive amounts of data

Online Research in the Healthcare Industry

Online research is particularly valuable for the healthcare industry because online communities are increasingly a major point of interaction between patients and caretakers. A recent study using a sample of cancer survivors found that 85% of their respondents regularly used the internet for health purposes.

MDRG recently used online research to explore the potential of this method for understanding healthcare experiences. Our research sought to elucidate the factors that generate patient trust or distrust in healthcare capabilities. We focused on cancer treatment and care.

For this study, MDRG collected and analyzed approximately 500 comments on posts that had seen activity on in the largest cancer community on Reddit during May and June 2017. We found online activity indicating that healthcare providers can sometimes struggle to gain the trust of cancer patients and caregivers. As a result, many patients and caregivers to turn online sources for reassurance and advice.

The distrust that compels patients and caregivers to seek out advice online is often sparked by the following:

  • The belief that doctors are sugarcoating information, which compels patients and caretakers to seek out online communities to make sure nothing is ‘missed’ and explore all possibilities of their medical circumstances.
  • Bad news, particularly for those who already survived cancer or expected their conditions to improve. They often come to communities seeking emotional support.
  • Complicated and ambiguous diagnosis and treatment options, which compel patients to turn to online communities for clarity.
  • The notion that even the most respected practitioners can make mistakes or have gaps in their knowledge. These patients and caregivers feel crowdsourcing online communities for information might produce information their practitioner might not know, especially if they have a rare form of cancer.

Healthcare Online Consumer Insights

Online communities frequently fulfill unmet social and emotional needs of patients and caregivers by connecting to them to others with shared experiences. They frequently develop family-like social bonds – what anthropologists refer to as fictive kinships. These relationships typically arise between those with shared cancer-related experiences and backgrounds.

Trust is engendered through these relationships, which compel patients and caregivers to feel comfortable relying on online spaces as sources of medical advice.

For this reason, digital spaces are especially useful for research conducted in the healthcare industry. The social dynamics of patient interactions online allowed us to identify the kind of information and emotional reassurance that patients and caregivers are not receiving from their healthcare providers.

Our online healthcare study ultimately produced other valuable consumer insights you can read about here.



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