The Creation of Social Value: Can an Online Health Community Reduce Rural-Urban Health Disparities?

Online communities are growing in numbers, interactivity and therefore, significance. Online social networks, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, undeniably affect our lives more and more every day. However, not always the creation of such an online community serves commercial purposes.

The aim of the article by Goh, Guodong (Gordon) Gao & Agarwal 2016 is to examine the creation of social value by the participation in an online community, created solely for patients of specific health diseases. The specific purpose of the authors is to examine whether the exchange of information on the platform can lead to a reduction of health disparities between urban and rural areas.

According to the literature, rural areas face greater health adversity issues because of asymmetrical access to information and health resources. What deteriorates the situation even further, is the fact that residents of rural areas do not have easy access to support groups. The above-mentioned facts lead patients to a limited number of interactions with healthcare professionals and peer patients, which in turn is the cause of their low health literacy. Therefore, the authors advocate that the participation on an online community will help alleviate those differences.

The main strengths of this study are its dataset, the model used, and the robustness checks that the authors performed. The dataset is focused on patients of a specific disease which according to the authors is the ideal for the purpose of this study. There reasons are, that the disease could be improved by the exchange of information, but at the same time it is relatively rare which makes the exchange of information between patients considerably difficult. The choice of an ERGM model is considered appropriate, since it has been proven to perform better on network data compared to a regression analysis, for instance. Lastly, the robustness checks, such as the elimination of top contributors in the network, improve the reader’s confidence in the results.

The article concludes that there is a net surplus of information transfer from urban to rural areas. Thus, participation of rural areas in online communities improves rural patients’ health capabilities. In turn, these enhanced capabilities lead to a reduction in health disparities which constitutes the creation of social value.

It could be argued, that the biggest weakness of the article lies in its conclusion. This study merely proves that there is a positive flow of information from urban to rural patients within the network. There is no evidence that this flow of information actually leads to a reduction of health disparities between the two areas. The authors base their conclusion on the assumption that improved health capabilities lead to a reduction of health disparities. However, the paper’s aspiration was to prove the creation of social value. In order for patients’ health to improve, the mere exchange of information is not considered enough. There must be a robust check on the quality of the information exchanged on the platform and most importantly on the results on patients’ health. It is only then, that we could come to a safe conclusion that the communication through this online community created significant social value.


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