It seems like a given — people going through tough times need a helping hand and a shoulder to cry on. That’s where support groups come in. In the past, it was an opportunity for people in like circumstances to gather face-to-face and talk with one another about their experiences.
Today’s support groups are just as beneficial, but they look a little different.
In a time where virtual care options are not just preferred but expected, online support groups are gaining momentum. Walled gardens — a closed platform that allows moderators to create digital groups, primarily for people with common goals or interests — offer healthcare systems an opportunity to use their brand to build community among their patients.
Moving patient support groups online
So what role do healthcare systems play in online support groups? It’s a simple, but impactful, move: They can be the ones to create and facilitate them. By doing this, they’re able to help patients, caregivers, and families to stay connected to the hospital with more ease.
Online support groups provide a safe space for patients to:
- Share how they’re feeling and lessons they’ve learned.
- Ask designated providers in the group questions about their condition — including treatment options, side effects, and managing symptoms.
- Let their peers who are feeling isolated know they’re not alone.
And to add to the list of benefits, online groups are significantly more accessible for those with circumstantial challenges, such as mobility issues, autoimmune disorders, and people with busy schedules.
Knowing who to support
There’s no limit to care and support. Walled gardens can be home to a wide variety of virtual care resources, like grief support groups, caregiver support groups, or support groups for women. Examples of patients who could benefit from these virtual communities are:
- Cancer patients who can share stories and relate to others with similar experiences. They can also seek advice on diet and safety tips, or ask what to expect from treatment.
- Parents whose children are suffering from a chronic illness seeking advice from other parents on how to care for their child while still caring for themselves and their families.
- New mothers who are unsure how to navigate this unfamiliar role. There, they can find advice on feeding methods, sleep training, postpartum depression, or body image issues.
- Current or prospective bariatric surgery patients wanting to make an informed decision, find support through their weight loss journey, and receive wellness tips.
Bringing the experts to the patients
The benefits of walled garden support groups don’t end at patient-to-patient interactions. There are also opportunities for healthcare systems to host live guest speaker events by providers, who can speak on specific topics relevant to the patient’s disease, answer questions, and advise them on their condition or treatment.
And, with options for group admins to allow anonymous posts, patients can feel safe in asking for advice without disclosing their identity.
Online support groups can also be managed and monitored by service line nurses, social workers, psychiatrists, or other medical professionals. These experts can help lead discussions, ensure that members are following guidelines, and watch for inappropriate comments and HIPAA violations.
Making digital water cooler talk
Just like patients can find a sense of community through social media, so can employees. There might not be a water cooler for employees to chat around in a virtual space, but your staff doesn’t need one to stay connected to each other.
Administrators can use walled gardens to create specific channels for different topics, such as work-related discussions, hobbies, and interests.
Beyond fostering community and offering a mental break, these online groups are a fantastic backup channel for emergency communications for staff. It gives them another way to see updates in the event of natural disasters or other emergencies if they’re more likely to check social media than their email. There’s also the added factor of accessibility; getting into an intranet during a power outage can be difficult, if not impossible. Accessing information on social media through your phone or tablet is much easier during events like a natural disaster.
Keeping your audiences connected
Above all, creating these online support groups is all about fostering community and connection, whether with your patients or your employees.
For patients, online groups help them not only associate your hospital with a place to go when they’re sick, but also empower them to feel cared for in every aspect — physically, mentally, and emotionally, building loyalty over time.
For employees, online groups offer a safe and supportive space to keep them engaged and connected to their peers and build a greater sense of connection to your organization.
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