Traditional wisdom says that when you need quality medical advice, a doctor is the only source worth consulting. But online patient communities are challenging that assumption, and the results are hard to argue with.

These communities are essentially groups of patients who either have the same medical condition, have survived the same medical condition, or have provided care to some with the same medical condition. They come together in online forums to share their experiences with various drug and treatment options, to talk about doctors they have seen, to share coping tips and tricks, and to serve as source of support and understanding.

The growth of these communities, they exist for almost every condition imaginable, is due in part to the development of online communication channels. An even larger contributor to their growth seems to be the failings of the current healthcare system. Patients in need on information are often forced to make appointments, meet with rushed doctors and nurses, and make due with confusing or incomplete answers. For patients living with severe pain or even the threat of death, this uncertainty was simply unacceptable.

Physicians, to their credit, have been largely supportive of these communities. However, they have rightly expressed some reservations. They note that the risk of getting bad information is high, and that a patient with a disease is not a substitute for a doctor who specializes in that disease. Patients also run into obstacles with their insurance plans. They may hear about a treatment option in a patient community, only to learn that it is not covered by their plan. That can produce a “haves and have-nots” feeling that doesn’t help during a time of illness.

The growth of these communities points to a broader sea of change happening throughout healthcare, the empowerment of the patient. Instead of seeing medicine as something that flows from the doctor, through the healthcare apparatus, and ultimately to the patient; the patient is seen as an equal partner in their care strategy. That reflects the healthcare industry’s growing focus on wellness rather than just treatment.

No one argues that these communities are a replacement for doctors, but they have proven to be at the very least a powerful source of moral support, and at best a tool that patients can use to take control of their care. Considering how many patients already participate in them, there is little chance that they will phase out any time soon. Keep abreast of the changing face of healthcare and its embrace of IT in all forms, by following along with MedPartners.

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