The Role of Online Health Education Communities in Wellness and Recovery

The Role of Online Health Education Communities in Wellness and Recovery

Kathleen P. King (University of Central Florida, USA), Julie A. Leos (University of South Florida, USA) and Lu Norstrand (University of South Florida, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9494-1.ch007


This chapter discusses the powerful role of online health education communities in wellness, fitness, and recovery. From knee and hip replacement to student service worker burnout, there are many freely available professional online communities, which provide health education and support for a wide variety of needs. Using qualitative inquiry, this multiple case study includes site analysis. This study explores whether adult learning principles are embedded in the design and operation of these popular virtual health education communities. The analysis specifically examines the presence and function of four specific adult learning theories' characteristics: informal learning, self-directed learning, peer learning, and common adult learning principles. Additionally, the nature of benefits and support are documented. Finally, in addition to the analysis and discussion, the chapter provides examples to identify emergent guidelines for discerning trustworthy vs. unhelpful online health education communities. Several suggestions are provided for future research.
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The Real Benefits Of Virtual Experiences

One Friday morning, Isabelle Snead had fallen on the ice on her way to her car. The injury was more than the word “painful” could describe, and the doctor confirmed that the hip was broken. At 55 years old, she needed a complete hip replacement. The first thoughts were, “How am I going to handle all of this by myself?” and “What am I getting into?”

The medical team at the orthopedic surgeon’s office was fine-tuned to make arrangements for the surgery and home based physical therapy. The doctor and staff took plenty of time to explain the procedure, as well as the benefits and risks. Although her health care providers explained the specifics of her surgery and care, Isabelle needed so much more. She needed social support, understanding, and knowledge. Her friends and family were scattered across the USA, and were far from being the ones to provide the support she needed. She wondered where she might attain these intangibles in a healthcare system, which often seems to value income over patient care.

Isabelle did what 72% of Americans do when they have a healthcare question; she went online and began searching for answers (Fox & Duggan, 2013).

Two months after Isabelle’s surgery, she is more active each day. The surgery proceeded as the doctor had described, but it was the virtual community at BoneSmart® that was her mainstay of support and information. From detailed medical articles about the surgery and what to expect in recovery, to online forums for asking questions, and the space to chronicle her own journey, she had used the resources day and night during those months. It was an interactive online community of education, healing, and, now, wellness. And unlike many others she had seen, it was not left to the participants to fend for themselves. Instead, is hosted (or facilitated) by experienced orthopedic nurses. This fact no doubt was responsible for boosting the credibility and tone of the discussions tremendously.

She remembered that before surgery she was so frightened, mostly of the unknown. Thankfully, she had stumbled upon the virtual community of BoneSmart®. She had navigated to the videos and other materials, which explained the hip surgery and recovery process. So much of her anxiety was reduced by reading articles, which provided important information and facts that she could read and review at her own pace.

Having gained confidence with the value of, she had created a free user account and shared that her surgery was days away. When she logged in the next morning, there were multiple well wishes from other users who had already been through the same surgery! Now she had a virtual cheering section.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Support: In this chapter, support is specifically discussed within the context of healthcare and wellness. Support in online or virtual communities may include any of the following strands and more: emotional, technical, informational, referral, philosophical, spiritual, etc. In addition, support may be communicated through such means as, comments on a blog discussion posting, instant messages, emails, tracking goals, providing instructions, answers, or activities, and much more.

Online Community: People who communicate via internet technologies through a common platform are considered to be a part of an online community. Most often each user creates a username and password to establish an account. Once they are a member, they use that identity (username) in online discussion, instant message, emails, voice over internet protocol (VOIP), avatar simulations (i.e., Second Life) ( King, 2014 ; Palloff & Pratt, 2001 , 2007 ). Many online communities have a specific focus to draws and retain people in them.

Virtual Community: See the definition for Online Communities.

Informal Learning: This chapter discusses several different definitions and theories of informal learning. Common characteristics in these models include: learner determined order of “instruction”, the absence of a teacher who plans and/or delivers instruction, non-sequential (open system) nature of learning ( Marsick & Watkins, 1990 ; Eraut, 2004 ).

Self-Directed Learning (SDL): A learning theory which highlights the volition and direction of the learner without instructor intervention. Self-directed learning is characterized by individuals setting their own learning goals, identifying their resources, exploring new possibilities for resources and information, determining when they want to finish the learning ( Knowles, 1968 ; Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2006 ). SDL is often intrinsically motivated, although in the case of quality of health, fitness, and surgical recovery, the situation can trigger the SDL experience ( Dewey, 1938 ).

Peer Learning (PL): A mode of learning experiences in which people learn from one another, rather than from an instructor or content expert. Peers are defined people who are in the same situation or have the same condition, dialogue, “advise”, and/or share common experiences or issues in a reciprocal manner ( Boud, Cohen, & Sampson, (2001) . Benefits of peer learning are many and the mode is useful for learners of all ages.

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