Sharing and empathy in digital spaces: Qualitative study of online health forums for breast cancer and motor neuron disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis)

Sarah Hargreaves, Peter A. Bath, Suzanne Duffin, Julie Ellis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Citations (Scopus)


Background: The availability of an increasing number of online health forums has altered the experience of living with a health condition, as more people are now able to connect and support one another. Empathy is an important component of peer-to-peer support, although little is known about how empathy develops and operates within online health forums. Objective: The aim of this paper is to explore how empathy develops and operates within two online health forums for differing health conditions: breast cancer and motor neuron disease (MND), also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Methods: This qualitative study analyzed data from two sources: interviews with forum users and downloaded forum posts. Data were collected from two online health forums provided by UK charities: Breast Cancer Care and the Motor Neurone Disease Association. We analyzed 84 threads from the breast cancer forum and 52 from the MND forum. Threads were purposively sampled to reflect varied experiences (eg, illness stages, topics of conversation, and user characteristics). Semistructured interviews were conducted with 14 Breast Cancer Care forum users and five users of the MND forum. All datasets were analyzed thematically using Braun and Clarke’s six-phase approach and combined to triangulate the analysis. Results: We found that empathy develops and operates through shared experiences and connections. The development of empathy begins outside the forum with experiences of illness onset and diagnosis, creating emotional and informational needs. Users came to the forum and found their experiences and needs were shared and understood by others, setting the empathetic tone and supportive ethos of the forum. The forum was viewed as both a useful and meaningful space in which they could share experiences, information, and emotions, and receive empathetic support within a supportive and warm atmosphere. Empathy operated through connections formed within this humane space based on similarity, relationships, and shared feelings. Users felt a need to connect to users who they felt were like themselves (eg, people sharing the same specific diagnosis). They formed relationships with other users. They connected based on the emotional understanding of ill health. Within these connections, empathic communication flourished. Conclusions: Empathy develops and operates within shared experiences and connections, enabled by structural possibilities provided by the forums giving users the opportunity and means to interact within public, restricted, and more private spaces, as well as within groups and in one-to-one exchanges. The atmosphere and feeling of both sites and perceived audiences were important facilitators of empathy, with users sharing a perception of virtual communities of caring and supportive people. Our findings are of value to organizations hosting health forums and to health professionals signposting patients to additional sources of support.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere222
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number6
Early online date21 Dec 2017
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jun 2018
Externally publishedYes


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