The Growth Channel

Online patient networks: Changing group behavior with a click

Emily Zuehlke, Marketing and Planning Leadership Council

In-person group visits (or shared medical appointments) can be an effective way to engage rising- and at-risk patients in behavior change, but face-to-face visits are not always necessary. Online support networks can offer comparable opportunities for providers to promote behavior change among a wider group of patients without seeing them in-office for each visit.

Online support networks traditionally provide patients with rare diseases the opportunity to learn more about their condition through educational articles and conversations with fellow patients. Recently, however, providers and start-ups have begun offering similar networks for more common chronic diseases to help rising- and at-risk patients manage their own care and adopt healthier behaviors.

Privacy and anonymity put patients at ease

Some patients prefer these online forums due to the privacy through anonymity that select programs allow. Additionally, “compared to in-person support groups, the online version helps us reach a different demographic, including more employed people and those with less schedule flexibility,” says Dr. David McCulloch, senior diabetologist at the Group Health Cooperative.

Online support networks typically take one of two forms: less structured patient communities, or more structured virtual group visits.

Online patient communities

Online patient communities bring together patients with the same condition to engage with each other through informal blogs, question walls, games, self-reporting of progress toward a health goal, and disease-specific resources.

Group Health Cooperative, a health plan and care delivery system based in Seattle, Washington, offers its members online communities to increase the frequency with which patients with one or more chronic conditions can engage in support groups. 

In a diabetes management virtual group, which is based on a Stanford model, patients are connected to each other to foster social support, and a trained facilitator helps participants break down barriers to behavior change and care access. Patients in a pilot group sought 50% fewer ED visits and 24% fewer specialty visits per year compared to non-participants.

Virtual group visits

Virtual group visits offer a more targeted, intimate experience: patients are assigned to a small, designated team with a peer coach, clinician, or other trained facilitator. Together, teammates work through a set curriculum to meet goals for better managing their conditions.

Omada Health, a health care start up, has had initial success in offering recurring virtual group visits to pre-diabetic patients. The 16-week weight loss and healthy living program creates cohorts that are matched by location, age, BMI, and patients’ personalities. 

A program alumnus provides peer coaching as participants progress through online preventative health modules, which evolve throughout the program to match the individual’s progress. The program has seen a 3:1 three year ROI, and, with the help of the group’s support, patients experience a 5-7% reduction in body weight, on average. 

Help Us Continue Our Research

Does your institution offer virtual group visits or online patient communities? Please email to tell us about your initiatives.