Online health communities management

Unique aspects of managing health communities

Amrita Bhowmick

Amrita Bhowmick, MBA, MPH
Chief Community Officer

By Amrita Bhowmick, MBA, MPH
VP Community Development – Health Union
January 27th, 2016

Anyone who manages a community — online or offline — will identify sensitivities within that community. This includes topics that either generate strong feelings of consensus or prompt division within members. The role of the community manager is to identify these sensitivities, and then manage them in a way that generates positive, productive discussions.

While sensitivities exist within every community, they are often more pronounced within health communities. Challenges faced by our community members at Health Union range from significant physical impairment to struggles pertaining to mental health and relationships. Individual experiences with a condition, medical care, and financial assistance can vary significantly, leading to a large likelihood for disagreement. As we’re continuously striving to meet the needs of ALL of our members, we make conscious efforts to maintain an open yet safe environment throughout our platforms. Within these efforts, it is pertinent to keep several considerations in mind.

community health management

Different segments can have conflicting needs

As with any growing community, there are distinct segments with very specific needs. While it is critical to address the needs of each community segment, we’ve learned that this can be particularly challenging when focusing on health conditions. Those who are newly diagnosed are often seeking basic information about a particular condition — for instance diagnosis criteria, common symptoms, or treatment experiences. However, individuals living with a more progressed form of the condition are typically seeking validation and a connection with others who can relate to their frustration. These members can typically unite in their fear, frustration, isolation and pain- all things that those who are newly diagnosed may shy away from out of fear or overwhelming anxiety. Although we understand that every community member will not relate to every article we publish, we work very hard to meet the needs of each segment without offending other segments.

Everyone can have bad days…People living with debilitating health conditions can have really bad days

Part of our goal at Health Union is to create and maintain a safe yet welcoming environment. This is particularly important when moderating community discussion. When a particular member appears to be problematic, possibly showing disdain or aggression to our content or the responses of others, the first step of a community manager is to understand where they are coming from. Often times, it could be one line in an article that struck a nerve (for example — the phrase “I have MS but MS doesn’t have me” often tends to rub people the wrong way depending on their individual experience with the disease). In that situation, we address the issue and attempt to positively engage the member in order to gain a sense of empathy towards their concerns or experience. In other situations, we might learn that an individual is simply going through a rough patch and needs to be reminded that communication online can vary dramatically from face to face interactions. For example, online communication often lacks tone or can create a confusing voice. A phrase meant to be factual or inquisitive in a non-threatening manner, can often come across harsh or attacking, even when this is nowhere near the original intent. It is important to educate members on the potential downfalls of online communication, while trying to empathize with their concern.

Not everyone wants answers

Our websites provide access to a wealth of information ranging from basic disease state knowledge to large scale survey results. It can often be tempting to respond to every question with a variety of tools and resources to answer members’ questions. However, it’s also important to remember that many people do not want “answers” in the form of referenced medical information. They simply want to know that they are not alone in the frustrations that they face. In these situations, even a single anecdotal response from a moderator or another community member is far more valuable than a series of articles or tools.

community health management two people talking

Maintain appropriate responsiveness

Our goal is to respond to every question within 24 hours of posting – ideally the sooner the better. This said, oftentimes we’re asked questions that we simply cannot answer due to safety concerns. Although we cannot offer personal medical advice, we do our best to triage appropriately. For example, recommending emergency care or a consultation with their primary healthcare provider. We also provide general information that may help answer questions and provide direction without giving specific recommendations, or if appropriate, we share links to relevant resources such as peer-reviewed publications, support groups, and financial assistance programs.

It’s critical to build the right team

In most cases, members of the community team at Health Union are not living with the condition(s) that they focus on. Due to this, it’s critical to build a diverse team of advisors to provide the right direction, guidance, and feedback. We are very fortunate to work with incredible teams of contributors and moderators in every condition that we operate in. They are thought leaders in their field and have personal experience that is invaluable.

Managing online communities is always interesting; learning about the unique nuances of differing types of communities adds even more complexity. What unique aspects of your industry or interest-specific community do you address as a community manager?