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New Research to Explore Role of Online Peer Support on Phoenix Rising Forums

Mark Berry introduces Dr Neil Coulson and Anna Maddison from the University of Nottingham, and their new 2-part research project with Phoenix Rising

globe-86244_640The most rewarding part of my work with Phoenix Rising is meeting people who tell me that treatment information they have found on our forums has dramatically changed their lives and their health, or that the forums provide them with valuable social and emotional support in their isolation and are a vital ‘lifeline’ for them. After all, the forums are a central part of Phoenix Rising’s work – they are the largest ME/CFS forums in the world, and how I found the organization in the first place – and the non-profit provides and manages these forums in the hope and belief that they are a valuable resource to the ME/CFS community.

But a lot of my time as a forum moderator is spent dealing with problems, grievances, and criticism. We work very hard to deal with those issues in order to make the forums a pleasant and supportive environment, but when so much of your time is spent handling the negative aspects, it’s not always easy to assess the big picture and get a reliable sense of whether the positives outweigh the negatives.

So I would love to know: just how valuable are the Phoenix Rising forums? Exactly what kind of benefits do they bring to the lives of our members? What types of conversations do our members hold on the forums, and what purposes do they serve? How can I demonstrate to potential funders and skeptical friends that the forums are a genuinely valuable resource for ME/CFS patients? How do our forums compare with other online health forums; what do we do well and what can we improve? Is there anything that our members are looking for that we don’t yet provide?

When I first met Dr Neil Coulson a little over a year ago, I soon realized that I had stumbled upon the perfect way to answer some of these questions.



Dr Neil Coulson

Dr Neil Coulson is Associate Professor in Health Psychology at the University of Nottingham, and he has been researching the experience of patients who access and use online forums for the past 8 years. His work has focused on understanding the positive ways that peer support can help individuals in times of need, and to date he has worked across a range of long term conditions including HIV/AIDS, various cancers, infertility and Huntington’s disease.

I met Dr Coulson when I was following up on a research student of his who had asked if she could post on our forums to invite our members to complete a survey for her research project. When I learned that her supervisor worked at the University of Nottingham, where I also work part-time, it was easy to read up on his research interests and contact him to assess where this research was coming from. Members – myself included – were understandably concerned and somewhat suspicious about a psychologist investigating ME/CFS, so I took the opportunity to meet with Neil. I took note of the various concerns that members had expressed, and raised them with him.

nottingham_uni_groupMy concerns evaporated rapidly as Neil and I discussed his research interests, and we quickly discovered that we shared a passionate interest in the value of online patient communities. As his homepage at the University explains, “Dr Neil Coulson is an international expert in the role of online support communities and healthcare. His work has demonstrated the important role online communities play in empowering patients as they attempt to cope with the challenges of long term conditions. In particular, he has published a number of pioneering papers which have explored the provision of social support between community members (e.g. Coulson, Buchanan & Aubeeluck, 2008).”

Neil isn’t the only researcher to have studied online support communities, but he does appear to be the only researcher in the world who has made this area his primary focus. It was clear to me from our conversations that he had a deep understanding of the issues, and of the revolutionary potential of online communities for healthcare support. The happy coincidence that he is based within a mile of my own home seemed an opportunity too good to pass up! We began to explore the possibilities for a research project…

The research to date

The only published research that I am aware of regarding the use of online forums by ME/CFS patients is a a Norwegian study which found that “individuals suffering from CFS/ME appear to be much more active in their use of online discussion forums than sufferers of other somatic or mental health conditions”, although the limited range of conditions used for comparison and the methodology of searching for forums through Google, using the Norwegian language, seem to offer rather limited evidence for this conclusion: only 12 forums were identified, 2 of which were ME forums and 2 of which had only 1 member between them. The 12 forums studied were identified by looking at the first 10 Google search results for a list of 11 conditions which the authors say are relatively common in the young adult population: CFS/ME, fibromyalgia, whiplash, electromagnetic hypersensitivity, diabetes, cancer, anxiety, depression, drugs and alcohol dependency, neck and back conditions and chronic pain. The resulting table shows that the researchers only found 2 forums, other than the ME forums, with over 500 members, but they did find 2 large ME forums with 4,000 members between them. Dividing these numbers by the estimated number of patients in the population gave them a figure for ME/CFS of 50.5 forum members per 1,000 patients (5%); 10 times that of any other forum they found.

While the paper’s speculation as to the reasons for this apparently high rate of forum use rightly noted that “individuals suffering from a stigmatized condition of unknown aetiology may use the internet to look for explanations of symptoms or to seek out alternative treatments”, realized that “many patients also report feeling dissatisfied and having negative experiences in dealing with health services”, and wondered whether there might be “something specific about those suffering from CFS/ME and their experiences within the traditional healthcare system which drives them to seek alternative sources of support and information”; the authors stopped short of concluding that these observations might suggest a major inadequacy in the healthcare provision and approach to treatment available to ME/CFS patients.

Instead, they wondered whether the problem might be that “many CFS/ME sufferers are ‘action prone’; with a tendency for lifelong traits of over-activity”, suggested that “Internet forum activity may also be reinforced by the creation of in-group identity and pre-morbid personality traits”, and worried that “strong in-group identity within discussion forums may lead users away from ‘real life’ social support, therapeutic engagement and effective, evidence-based interventions”…by which they presumably mean those same ‘evidence-based interventions’ that drive ME/CFS patients “to seek alternative sources of support and information”. They also noted with concern the finding of Friedberg et al, in a study of 32 active and 135 inactive members of one support group, that “active members [of the support group] reported greater symptom severity and less illness improvement than inactive members or dropouts” – and tellingly they didn’t question whether this might indicate that the sickest are more likely to use such support groups, rather than the support groups themselves causing their illness severity and lack of improvement.

It’s hard not to feel that behind this paper lies a fear – or perhaps an assumption – that the use of online support groups by ME/CFS patients is likely to be harmful to patients, and the authors give the appearance of being concerned about the threat that forums pose to the model of ME/CFS that they presumably support. That impression seems consistent with the authors’ note that they “wish to thank Professor Simon Wessely…for valuable comments in the process of this study” and their acknowledgement of financial support from the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London and the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Health at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.

The paper concludes that “more knowledge on the type and quality of information provided in online forums is urgently needed”, suggesting that a critique of the information presented by ME/CFS forums is considered desirable by these researchers. In this context, an exploration of the positive and negative experiences of our own forum by an expert in online health communities would seem to be a useful contribution to the research literature.

The Big Idea

As I chatted with Dr Coulson, my head began to spin as I contemplated the potential benefits to Phoenix Rising, and to the wider community, of a research project exploring the value of the Phoenix Rising forums. We would all gain a better understanding of just what goes on in our forum discussions and what purposes those discussions might serve. We could explore the experience of forum members and find out what members value most about our forums – and importantly, what we can improve. High-quality, free, independent research into our services! We would hopefully end up with published evidence regarding the benefits our forums provide, which could be extremely valuable for promoting the forums and applying for funding. We would benefit from the insights of a (the?) world-leading researcher in the study of online health communities. And the perspective of the researchers seemed highly likely to enhance the quality of the literature on online forums for ME/CFS.



Question MarksOf course, there were (and are) still many concerns to address as well. How can we safeguard the privacy of our members and ensure that the research fairly represents the spread of activity on the forums while at the same time not intruding on the private and sensitive discussions that take place? What engagement would forum members be able to have in discussing the details of the research process? Could we ensure that members would not be quoted without their permission? Would members be properly consulted about the nature of the questions they would be asked, and have an opportunity to make suggestions about the study design?

Happily, Neil was able to reassure me on all these concerns, demonstrating remarkable understanding and sensitivity to the issues of privacy and consultation. Both Neil and Anna are keen to engage openly with members about these issues, and members will have an opportunity to raise their concerns and discuss the details of the research on the discussion thread for this article.

And so, with the support of Phoenix Rising, Dr Coulson and Anna Maddison have offered to undertake a two-part research project that seeks to explore and understand the role of peer-to-peer online support for individuals living with ME/CFS. I hope that forum members will be as excited as I am about this project, and embrace the opportunity to explore the value of our forum experience and improve the services that Phoenix Rising provides. Over now to Neil and Anna to introduce their plans for the research…

A two-part plan

The project is divided into two parts with each part being led by a separate researcher. What follows is a brief overview together with a little background about the researcher. We think it is important that you know who is involved and why they are working in this area and that you feel part of the process.

Part 1 – exploring the conversations that take place online

Anna Maddison

My name is Anna Maddison and I am currently studying for my Masters in Health Psychology at the University of Nottingham. Previous to this I studied my undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Dundee. My interest in ME/CFS arose about three years ago after I suffered severely from post-viral fatigue syndrome, and the following year my mother was diagnosed with ME. From these experiences of living with a similar illness myself and watching my mother struggle I came to understand the frustration surrounding the lack of concrete science and the unpredictable fluctuations the illness can take. I am fortunate that my academic background has provided the skills necessary to research and understand a lot about ME, and to now have the opportunity to carry out my own research in an area related to the patient experience of this illness.

The research I will be undertaking will be exploring the topics of conversation that arise between members of the forum. With the support and guidance of my supervisor Dr Coulson, together with Mark Berry from Phoenix Rising, I hope to identify the main areas of discussion and gain a valuable insight into how online peer support may function. I am keen to identify the positive ways through which individuals can help each other through forum engagement.

I am open to questions about this research.  If any should arise please feel free to email me at lwxalma@nottingham.ac.uk, or post on the forum discussion thread for this article.

Part 2 – listening to the experiences of forum members

Dr Neil Coulson

Hi, my name is Neil and I have been working for the past 8 years researching online forums for individuals and families affected by long term conditions. I am passionate about peer support and I hope through this work to be able to identify and describe the positive (and negative) experiences that members of the Phoenix Rising community have in relation to forum engagement. Later this summer (Sept-Oct) I will be uploading a link to a web-based survey that aims to listen to your own experiences of the forum. I will be asking a mix of open-ended questions as well as more ‘tick box’ style questions in order to build up a rich insight into your online experiences and to help us understand why peer support can be so valuable. In addition, this survey is being used as an opportunity to listen to your thoughts about how things are going thus far on the forum and whether you have any suggestions for improvement going forward.

Like Anna, I am very happy to chat to anyone who has any questions and my email is neil.coulson@nottingham.ac.uk

And finally…

We appreciate the challenges of living with this condition and our research is not intended to comment in any way about the illness per se – but rather to explore how helping each other online can make a difference. The findings from both parts of the project will be made available in summary form through the Phoenix Rising website and we hope you will welcome this opportunity to engage with us in this very worthwhile piece of research.