Impact of Social Processes in Online Health Communities on Patient Empowerment in Relationship With the Physician: Emergence of Functional and Dysfunctional Empowerment

Background: Substantial research demonstrates the importance of online health communities (OHCs) for patient empowerment, although the impact on the patient-physician relationship is understudied. Patient empowerment also occurs in relationship with the physician, but studies of OHCs mostly disregard this. The question also remains about the nature and consequences of this empowerment, as it might be based on the limited validity of some information in OHCs. Objective: The main purpose of this study was to examine the impact of social processes in OHCs (information exchange with users and health professional moderators, social support, finding meaning, and self-expressing) on functional and dysfunctional patient empowerment in relationship with the physician (PERP). This impact was investigated by taking into account moderating role of eHealth literacy and physician’s paternalism. Method: An email list–based Web survey on a simple random sample of 25,000 registered users of the most popular general OHC in Slovenia was conducted. A total of 1572 respondents completed the survey. The analyses were conducted on a subsample of 591 regular users, who had visited a physician at least once in the past 2 years. To estimate the impact of social processes in OHC on functional and dysfunctional PERP, we performed a series of hierarchical regression analyses. To determine the moderating role of eHealth literacy and the perceived physician characteristics, interactions were included in the regression analyses. Results: The mean age of the respondents in the sample was 37.6 years (SD 10.3) and 83.3% were females. Factor analyses of the PERP revealed a five-factor structure with acceptable fit (root-mean-square error of approximation =.06). Most important results are that functional self-efficacy is positively predicted by information exchange with health professional moderators (beta=.12, P=.02), information exchange with users (beta=.12, P=.05), and giving social support (beta=.13, P=.02), but negatively predicted with receiving social support (beta=−.21, P<.001). Functional control is also predicted by information exchange with health professional moderators (beta=.16, P=.005). Dysfunctional control and competence are inhibited by information exchanges with health professionals (beta=−.12, P=.03), whereas dysfunctional self-efficacy is inhibited by self-expressing (beta=−.12, P=.05). The process of finding meaning likely leads to the development of dysfunctional competences and control if the physician is perceived to be paternalistic (beta=.14, P=.03). Under the condition of high eHealth literacy, the process of finding meaning will inhibit the development of dysfunctional competences and control (beta=−.17, P=.01). Conclusions: Social processes in OHCs do not have a uniform impact on PERP. This impact is moderated by eHealth literacy and physician paternalism. Exchanging information with health professional moderators in OHCs is the most important factor for stimulating functional PERP as well as diminishing dysfunctional PERP. Social support in OHCs plays an ambiguous role, often making patients behave in a strategic, uncooperative way toward physicians. Journal of Medical Internet Research