The rise of online support groups and how social workers can help

Limestone College Social Work

According to a Pew Research study, “eight percent of Internet users living with chronic disease say they participate in an online discussion, a listserv, or other online group forum that helps people with personal issues or health problems.” And, in situations when a person is looking for emotional support in dealing with a health issue, close to 60 percent of people say “fellow patients, friends and family are more helpful than doctors and nurses.”

The growth of online patient communities in recent years has sparked some debate over the pros and cons of online support groups.

On one end, they can offer emotional support from people who have personal knowledge of what’s it like to deal with a particular issue. They provide access to support groups far beyond one’s geographic location — especially valuable to those with limited mobility. On the other hand, issues of privacy, poor group management, hoaxes, or simply communication failures have made some people apprehensive about joining an online support group.

However, a recent Social Work Today article by Susan A. Knight highlights why online patient communities can be particularly effective and how social workers can help ensure safe and secure online spaces.

“The social support provided in these groups is immensely valuable and goes hand in hand with the specialized, firsthand information that group members are able to offer their peers,” writes Knight. Also, online support groups can be especially helpful to people with rare diseases when information and solutions are hard to find.

Social workers who may lead these groups can take specific measures to help ensure participants get the most from their online interactions. Some suggestions offered in Knight’s article include:

  • Implementing an application process
  • Monitoring newly joined participants for a period of time
  • Ensuring that the group access is password-protected
  • Appointing or acting as a moderator who can facilitate discussions, answer questions and address any arising concerns
  • Developing and communicating clear participation guidelines

Recognizing the increased use of technology in providing care, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW)  and the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB)  have also developed Standards for Technology and Social Work Practice. Students and young professionals can review the document to learn more about how they can improve the quality of technology-related services provided by social workers.

At Limestone College, students pursuing a Bachelor of Social Work will take SW 301 – Social Work Intervention: Individuals, Families and Small Groups. This course prepares students to facilitate and moderate support groups while helping them build relevant skills such as establishing professional relationship, patient communication, recording and problem solving among others.

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