Fall-Winter 2002-2003

Pattern Discussion: Mutual-Help Medical Web Sites
by Patricia Radin


People confronted with serious health issues urgently need timely, personalized information, and caring support. Unfortunately, it is rare that busy health professionals or a patient's own friends and family can satisfy this strong need for communication. Sometimes a medically oriented web community becomes a powerful source of medical information, support, and even new friendships. How can a site be designed to promote this useful outcome?


The key seems to lie in trust, a necessary condition for mutual help to thrive. Therefore, we looked at trust-building strategies in an exemplary online community, Breast Cancer Action Nova Scotia, the largest and oldest site for breast cancer survivors.

Studies show the process for building trust involves increasing levels of risk-taking: People lower their guard with individuals when they have something (such as breast cancer) in common. Sharing personal information and doing things together are steps toward greater trust and intimacy.


The Canadian site encourages trust through the following design features:

  1. Nonprofit sponsorship by breast cancer survivors and vigilant protection from harassment reduce risks to participants. Simultaneously, the ability to "lurk" allows visitors to assess the benefits of participating while remaining invisible.
  2. A password-protected "biog" section and a more public "profile" option allow users to disclose as much as they wish about their lives.
  3. The site promotes participation in international gatherings, fundraising, book authorship, and many other shared experiences.

Web sites that are designed with trustworthiness in mind can promote effective mutual help online, providing vital information and comfort to medical patients.

Patricia Radin  is an award-winning journalist, Assistant Professor, and head of the new media program in the Department of Communication, California State University-Hayward.

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