Special Issue | Online Health Communities in the Vortex of Healthcare Controversies

Theoretical Frameworks and Empirical Studies

Guest Editors: Gregor Petrič & Sara Atanasova

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Online health communities (OHCs) have become important realms of online social interactions that attract many patients and Internet users in general. OHCs are rich venues of patient-to-patient, patient-to-practitioner, and practitioner-to-practitioner communication. They are based on various platforms such as online forums and networking sites, connect different groups of people including patients, practitioners, and patient associations, have various organizational forms of interaction (e.g., discussion boards, Q&A consultation services), and are focused on a rich array of topics and interests that range from rare diseases to mental health issues and self-help to support groups.

OHCs have been recognized as platforms that have increased user accessibility to health-related information and provided them opportunities to mitigate the physical limitations of access to healthcare services (Goh et al., 2016). OHCs can also potentially aid patients with chronic and rare diseases by helping them communicate with peer-patients affected with similar conditions as well as by providing them access to information, clinical trials, and innovative treatment options (Lasker et al., 2005). Additionally, OHCs have been associated with beneficial health-related outcomes and users’ experience of health and illness. The availability of information provided by both peer-patients and health professionals, and, more importantly, the opportunity to exchange social support in OHCs, have often been reported as being linked to better management of illnesses, greater acceptance of health situations, the development of coping skills, increased self-esteem and emotional well-being (Johnston et al., 2013; Petrovčič & Petrič, 2014). Moreover, OHCs have also been associated with users’ development of specific skills and competences that play an important role in communication with personal doctors (Yang et al., 2015).

However, OHC users might also develop a dysfunctional empowerment in relation to doctors, which can lead to negative encounters, nonadherence, conflicts, and unproductive or even manipulative relationships (Petrič et al., 2017a). Thus, the use of OHCs is not without its pitfalls. Users are often confronted with a large amount of health-related information, some of which may be misleading and confusing (Zhao et al., 2021); this may lead users towards problematic self-diagnosis or self-treatments (Bartlett & Coulson, 2011). Information of low relevance and questionable validity shared in some OHCs (Huh & Pratt, 2014; Petrič et al., 2017b) might lead to states of confusion, distress, anxiety, and panic (Ahmad et al., 2006). Examples of OHCs in which users have been encouraged to practice unhealthy lifestyles and practices include the pro-anorexia OHC (Gavin et al., 2008) and the anti-vaccination OHC on Twitter (Wilson & Keelan, 2013). This clearly demonstrates the need for regulation, the raising of e-health literacy, and, in general, a critical reflection of the role of OHCs.

OHCs are dynamic and insightful places where a variety of communicative processes can be detected; these processes are linked to tensions between different levels of accessibility, different forms of interaction, various streams of knowledge, tensions between low and high e-health literacy, conflicts between expert and patient expertise, positive and negative aspects of patient empowerment, and the like. This special issue aims to address the tensions, opportunities, and perils of OHCs that have important effects on individuals such as patients, caregivers, and health professionals as well as on patient-health professional interaction, the healthcare system and its services. This special issue is open but not limited to studies that intersect or interconnect with the following topics:

  • Communicative dynamics in OHCs and their controversial outcomes
  • Quality, validity, credibility of health-related information in OHCs
  • Causes and consequences of (dis)trust and (mis)information in OHCs
  • Patient empowerment and disempowerment and their effects on the self-management of health issues, decision making processes, and trust in health experts
  • Empowerment of health-professionals participating in OHCs
  • Impact of patient-health professional interaction in OHCs on offline patient-health professional relationships
  • The potential of OHCs for co-creation processes in the context of healthcare policies and businesses
  • OHCs’ role in informing policy, regulators, and health decision makers
  • Other topics related to OHCs

This special issue welcomes innovative studies and invites both theoretical and empirical papers with qualitative, quantitative, or mixed method approaches, so long as they address at least one of the above topics.

Submission Format

We welcome submissions that fit any of the EJHC formats: original research papers, theoretical papers, methodological papers, review articles, brief research reports. For further information on the article types, please see www.ejhc.org/about/submissions.

Manuscripts should be prepared in accordance with the EJHC author guidelines ⭷ and be submitted via the journal website ⭷.

Deadline for submission is 28 February 2022.

Review Process

All articles will undergo a rigorous peer review process. Once the paper has been assessed as appropriate by the editorial management team (with regard to form, content, and quality), it will be peer-reviewed by at least two reviewers in a double-blind review process; this means that reviewers are not disclosed to authors and authors are not disclosed to reviewers. To ensure a swift publication process, EJHC releases articles online on a rolling basis, which is expected to start in October 2022.

Contact Guest Editors

Gregor Petrič, University of Ljubljana: gregor.petric@fdv.uni-lj.si
Sara Atanasova, University of Ljubljana: sara.atanasova@fdv.uni-lj.si


Ahmad, F., Hudak, P. L., Bercovitz, K., Hollenberg, E., & Levinson, W. (2006). Are physicians ready for patients with Internet-based health information? Journal of Medical Internet Research, 8(3), e22. https://doi.org/10.2196/jmir.8.3.e22

Bartlett, Y. K., & Coulson, N. S. (2011). An investigation into the empowerment effects of using online support groups and how this affects health professional/patient communication. Patient Education and Counseling, 83(1), 113-119. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pec.2010.05.029

Gavin, J., Rodham, K., & Poyer, H. (2008). The presentation of “pro-anorexia” in online group interactions. Qualitative health research, 18(3), 325-333. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732307311640

Goh, J. M., Gao, G., & Agarwal, R. (2016). The creation of social value: Can an online health community reduce rural–urban health disparities?. Mis Quarterly, 40(1).

Huh, J., & Pratt, W. (2014). Weaving clinical expertise in online health communities. Paper presented at the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Toronto, Canada, April 26th to May 1st.

Johnston, A. C., Worrell, J. L., Di Gangi, P. M., & Wasko, M. (2013). Online health communities: An assessment of the influence of participation on patient empowerment outcomes. Information Technology & People, 26(2), 213-235. https://doi.org/10.1108/ITP-02-2013-0040

Lasker, J. N., Sogolow, E. D., & Sharim, R. R. (2005). The role of an online community for people with a rare disease: Content analysis of messages posted on a primary biliary cirrhosis mailinglist. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 7(1), e10. https://doi.org/10.2196/jmir.7.1.e10

Petrič, G., Atanasova, S., & Kamin, T. (2017a). Impact of social processes in online health communities on patient empowerment in relationship with the physician: Emergence of functional and dysfunctional empowerment. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 19(3), e74. https://doi.org/10.2196/jmir.7002

Petrič, G., Atanasova, S., & Kamin, T. (2017b). Ill literates or illiterates? Investigating the eHealth literacy of users of online health communities. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 19(10), e331. https://doi.org/10.2196/jmir.7372

Petrovčič, A., & Petrič, G. (2014). Differences in intrapersonal and interactional empowerment between lurkers and posters in health-related online support communities. Computers in Human Behavior, 34, 39-48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2014.01.008

Wilson, K., & Keelan, J. (2013). Social media and the empowering of opponents of medical technologies: the case of anti-vaccinationism. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 15(5), e103. https://doi.org/10.2196/jmir.2409

Yang, H., Guo, X., & Wu, T. (2015). Exploring the influence of the online physician service delivery process on patient satisfaction. Decision Support Systems, 78, 113-121. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dss.2015.05.006

Zhao, Y., Da, J., & Yan, J. (2021). Detecting health misinformation in online health communities: Incorporating behavioral features into machine learning based approaches. Information Processing & Management, 58(1), 102390. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ipm.2020.102390