Finding Healthcare Support in Online Communities: An Exploration of the Evolution and Efficacy of Virtual Support Groups

Donna Z. Davis, Willemien Calitz


With the advent of social media technologies, debate continues to swirl around the ability of these technologies to either connect or isolate. Healthcare support communities represent an especially vulnerable population who can potentially gain most significantly from the ability to connect via online social support groups. This paper reviews current literature on the efficacy of online social support groups, with a particular interest in 3-D online social virtual worlds. The literature reveals the importance of social support in general; of finding support online in these mediated environments; and the strengths and weaknesses in the current technologies that offer virtual healthcare support groups. Characteristics of social virtual worlds including persistence, anonymity, 24/7 access to individuals globally, and virtual embodiment reveal powerful potential to build support online. For example, individuals with disabilities, chronic illness, or mental illness may not have physical or social resources necessary to get to face-to-face support groups yet the literature also finds that they may find meaningful support in avatar form.

Finally, the literature also frequently cites the growing need for a clear understanding of user privacy, informed consent, intellectual property and ethics in research in this arena. As cost and access to healthcare and social support may become more challenging, access to support online is becoming more mainstream with tremendous opportunity, especially for individuals whose lives are limited by chronic illness or disability.


virtual worlds, online support, healthcare support groups

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