Through the experience of serious illness, patients develop substantial expertise about managing their personal health. When experienced patients ("mentors") share their expertise with individuals who are facing a health situation for the first time, they find considerable value is this help. Peer health communities offer a broad base of such "patient expertise", yet people can miss out on this valuable resource because, all too often, peer mentoring is difficult to obtain and yields advice that doesn't quite fit one's personal situation or context.
The efforts within this project are focused on overcoming this challenge by applying social matching as a technical and intellectual framework for connecting peers for mentorship in online health communities. In partnership with an online cancer community, the investigators are conducting a series of three studies that: (1) Identifying critical mentorship characteristics through a comparative study of automated text extraction as contrasted with to direct user entry of data, (2) Developing tools that connect peers for mentorship through rapid prototyping and usability testing with cancer patients, and (3) Assessing the value of matching for peer mentoring through an online community-based field evaluation.
The results from this research are expected to significantly improve the way people obtain peer help when faced with a health problem. Through a deeper understanding of patients' support needs, this project will use rich online community data to provide tailored recommendations of suitable peer mentors. This work advances knowledge of collaboration in online communities broadly and will translate to other patient services, such as face-to-face support groups. These contributions are significant because they offer patients crucial support strategies in an increasingly burdened healthcare system. Matchmaking among individuals with shared circumstances helps newcomers glean tailored insights into "what to expect" and helps those with experience to share their valuable expertise by "giving back". Thus, this work boosts our current understanding of the underlying processes and informs future research and development in technology that enhances the health and wellbeing of citizens by empowering peer mentorship.