6 major benefits of online support groups

Technologies such as electronic medical records software, patient portals and telemedicine tools have helped improve healthcare by facilitating more effective communication between patients and providers. An effective healthcare strategy, however, involves more than just patient and provider interactions. Smartphone apps, for example, have empowered patients to take greater control over their own health, by providing guidance in terms of preventative strategies. For example, there are apps that can help with crucial areas of daily management, such as exercise, nutrition and smoking cessation. 

Another way that patients have been able to use technology to play a more active role in their own healthcare is through online health resources. There is now a wealth of health information online, from symptom checkers to detailed fact sheets, as well as support groups. The latter can be especially helpful for patients living with a chronic illness, who need information and emotional support, but may find travel difficult or impossible. This article will take a closer look at why online support groups can be so effective.

What is a support group?
As detailed by Mental Health America, support groups are safe spaces, designed to help individuals discuss any number of issues pertaining to an illness or life struggle that they may be experiencing, with individuals who are experiencing the same or similar issues. The objective of support groups, ultimately, is to help participants feel less alone and find additional strength to navigate the complexities of the problem they are facing. Support groups typically target specific issues or illnesses. For example, there are support groups for those living with grief, and there are support groups for those who have received a chronic illness diagnosis, such as cancer or HIV. Mental health support groups are also very common, and have proven to be effective for helping those experiencing any number of conditions, from alcoholism to depression to obsessive compulsive disorder.

As mentioned, much like in other areas of healthcare, support groups have been affected by the technology boom. Individuals no longer need to travel to in-person meetings if they are unable or not inclined to do so, as there are now countless support groups online, and in various formats. For example, as explained by Mental Health America, digital support groups can be websites, chat rooms, blogs, discussion boards and even smartphone apps. 

What are some of the major benefits of online support groups?
Seeking support online can be very helpful. Here is a closer look at some of the major benefits of this approach:

1. Fluid information exchange
As explained by academic Laura S. Agnew, in a research paper submitted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the digital format of online groups better supports the exchange of important information. Resources can be shared and saved digitally, and stored in online folders, making them accessible at all times, to anyone. This kind of fluid information exchange is less possible during in-person support groups, as meeting organizers have to produce and distribute hard photocopies, which can be time consuming. This set-up also precludes spontaneous information exchange: To offer an example, in an online forum a participant may recommend a link to a website or blog that he or she found helpful and then instantly share it with the group - this is less possible in real life meetings, as the participant would have to remember to share the URL link or print off a hard copy of the relevant information.

Additionally, with in-person meetings, referring back to discussions is impossible. For example, if Patient A in a cancer support group is given information, in-person, but then forgets, that individual will have to wait for the next meeting or try and find the information themselves. This isn't the case with online support groups, as there will always be a digital record of the conversations that take place and a centralized place where resources can be accessed.

2. Continuous availability
For those experiencing a traumatic life event or chronic illness, emotional support may be needed at any time, day or night. Online support groups can meet this need, as discussion forums never close, and participants can send instant messages or emails at any time they feel they need help, an article from the National Cancer Institute explained. This is clearly not the case as far as in-person groups are concerned, as they meet at set times each week.

3. Greater access
In much the same vein that telemedicine has helped patients in rural or remote areas access care, support groups can provide help for users who may be unable to travel to in-person meetings, writer Deborah Gray explained, in an article published by HealthCentral. Barriers to travel include health conditions that make travel difficulty, immobility, financial problems and geographic distance - for those needing support in rural areas, for example, the nearest meeting may be a couple of hours away, which for many is an impractical distance to travel.

4. More anonymous
Some people seeking help may not want to make themselves known to others, for any number of reasons - perhaps they feel embarrassed, have social anxiety, or are concerned about the stigma of the issue they are facing. As explained by Agnew, online support groups are massively helpful in this regard as they allow for anonymity - participants do not have to disclose their identity if they don't wish. Agnew elaborated that men in particular, according to at least one study, prefer online discussion as opposed to in-person interactions. 

5. Additional support
As detailed in an article from researchers Juneau M. Gary and Linda Remolino, published by the American Counseling Association, support groups can also be harnessed as a supportive tool, in addition to in-person meetings or other therapeutic interventions, such as psychotherapy. Indeed, it is common for individuals to need more ongoing and continuous support than traditional in-person methods can provide, and this is where online groups can be impactful, as they can be utilized by individuals during the times between in-person meetings, for additional support. 

6. Provide the same support
Another major upside to online support groups is that they provide the same kind of emotional care as in-person meetings. Some of the countless benefits that can derived from attending a support group, according to an article from the Mayo Clinic, include: exchanging notes and information with others in the same situation, feeling less depressed and alone, achieving feelings of control and stability, finding coping strategies or tools for navigating the problem at hand and making meaningful connections with others. 

Kevin McCarthy's picture

Kevin McCarthy

Industry News Editor

An avid traveler and news junkie, Kevin covers a range of topics from healthcare technology to policy and regulations. As a former journalism student, he enjoys finding stories relevant to small practices and is passionate about keeping them informed. Before joining NueMD, Kevin worked for Turner Broadcasting as a Programming Intern where he conducted legal research and contributed to editorial content development. He received his bachelor's degree in Communication from Kennesaw State University and currently serves as the Industry News Editor at NueMD.

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