Reading time: 5 – 8 minutes
This article was written by Hope Leman.
Welcome to the battle for survival among the online patient communities, a.k.a. health-focused social networks and patient support groups. Sometimes they are dedicated sites (e.g. Patients Like Me and Trusera), sometimes the patient communities are just one of the features of a greater health-focused site (e.g. RightHealth) and in some cases they form about half of the offerings of a health site (e.g. Healia, MedHelp). Not all are developing the levels of activity that will enable their communities to gain traction. Given the stiff competition, many of the primary health consumer online patient communities are dying on the vine. For example, as of this writing Healia’s Parkinson’s Disease Community consists of only 11 members, a small number for a fairly common disease.
Today we will take a look at MDJunction. According to the site, “… the ‘MD’ in MDJunction stands for Making a Difference.”
Immediate Online Patient Community
It certainly does seem to have quite a bit of recent activity, obviously a key indicator of the health of these sites. For instance, I am checking the site on a Sunday morning and on the home page a member of the Bipolar Type II Support Group posted just one second ago.
Oops — I just refreshed the page and now that has been bumped down to 15 minutes ago because of other even more recent entries. That’s certainly a high level of immediacy compared to an industry leader, Patients Like Me. I just checked the Patients Like Me Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Community and the most recent entry was five minutes ago.
This illustrates an interesting difference between Patients Like Me and MDJunction: Patients Like Me treats each community as a separate entity (albeit under the Patients Like Me brand name), whereas portals like MDJunction show on the homepage what the most recent activity was in any of the communities (sometimes called forums, depending on the site). Indeed, sometimes forums are within communities, such as Patients Like Me, and sometimes they are distinct entities within the greater site, as with MedHelp. The nomenclature varies with each site, which might be one of the reasons why some sites are less trafficked and some communities devoid of members — it takes time to figure out how each works. Not only can you determine immediately on the homepage of MDJunction what is being discussed in detail, you can note such things as who has just joined the obesity group, who has just registered, who gave another user a hug and so on.
That five minutes ago of MDJunction certainly trumps by a long shot in terms of immediacy the “… about 14 hours ago” of Trusera.
Dead spaces, medical authority and user-generated content
However, there are definitely some dead spaces in MDJunction. The Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Community, for instance, is utterly inert, save for some initial come-ons a year ago by MDJunction co-founder, Roy Lev. But that is true of almost every ALS community save that of Patients Like Me, given the amazingly strong loyalty the ALS patient community has shown to the first mover for an online patient community for that illness. MDJunction’s Parkinson’s Disease Support Group has 23 members and the most recent posting as of this writing was 12 hours ago. That’s fairly good for such sites in this fiercely competitive space.
One always fascinating aspect of the world of online patient communities is the general tone shown toward the medical establishment. For instance, MedHelp touts its ties to medical experts at prestigious institutions (e.g. the Cleveland Clinic). Patients Like Me features pleasant and skillful interjections by a resident nurse as well as commentary and answers by a neuroscientist, but otherwise medical authorities are absent. In contrast, the content of sites like MDJunction and Trusera is almost entirely user-generated, save for Lev’s fairly constant presence in various sections of the site. There are advantages to his omnipresence — it shows his commitment to the service, which is a nice bit of homey personalization compared to the infrequent appearances of Ben Heywood on Patients Like Me. But Lev’s ubiquity on MDJunction verges on hucksterism. It is up to users to determine how much involvement they want from the operators of a site.
One rather interesting feature of MDJunction is the option for users to support a cause and increase awareness by wearing a ribbon. A chart delineates what colors of ribbons are designated for various diseases. For example, we read, “Burgundy ribbons are for myeloma, hospice care, Sepsis, APS (Antiphospholipid Antibody Syndrome), FVL, Thrombophilia, headaches and to support the Permanently Disabled” and “Blue ribbons are associated with Osteoporosis, ARDS, Osteogenesis Imperfecta, Child Abuse, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Colon Cancer Arthritis.” Users can affix icons of such ribbons to their comments on the site.
The ads in MDJunction are relatively unobtrusive. Given the punishing advertising climate these days, it will be hard for many of these sites to stay in business. MDJunction seems to have a fairly robust level of loyalty. It will be interesting to see how much of the discussion on medical topics generated on sites like MDJunction appears in search engines results. This is a new phenomenon that bears watching by those concerned about the possible dissemination of health misinformation on the Web.
About the author: Hope Leman is a research information technologist for a health network in Oregon and is also Web administrator of the grants and scholarship listing service ScanGrants.