Knowledge Acquisition and Social Support in Online Health Communities: Analysis of an Online Ovarian Cancer Community

Yu Chi, Khushboo Thaker, Daqing He, Vivian Hui, Heidi Donovan, Peter Brusilovsky, Young Ji Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Background: Patients and caregivers widely use online health communities (OHCs) to acquire knowledge from peers. Questions posed in OHCs reflect participants’ learning objectives and differ in their level of cognitive complexity. However, little is known about the topics and levels of participants’ learning objectives and the corresponding support they receive from members of OHCs. Objective: This study aimed to investigate the knowledge acquisition of patients and caregivers in an OHC. Specifically, we investigated the distribution and topics of posts with learning objectives at different cognitive complexity levels, the type and amount of social support provided to meet users’ learning objectives at different cognitive complexity levels, and the influence of social support on the change in learning objectives. Methods: We collected 10 years of discussion threads from one of the most active ovarian cancer (OvCa) OHCs. A mixed methods approach was used, including qualitative content analysis and quantitative statistical analysis. Initial posts with questions were manually classified into 1 of the 3 learning objectives with increasing cognitive complexity levels, from low to high, based on the Anderson and Krathwohl taxonomy: understand, analyze, and evaluate. Manual content analysis and automatic classification models were used to identify the types of social support in the comments, including emotional support and 5 types of informational support: advice, referral, act, personal experience, and opinion. Results: The original data set contained 909 initial posts and 14,816 comments, and the final data set for the analysis contained 560 posts with questions and 3998 comments. Our results showed that patients with OvCa and their caregivers mainly used OHCs to acquire knowledge for low- to medium-level learning objectives. Of the questions, 82.3% (461/560) were either understand- or analyze-level questions, in which users were seeking to learn basic facts and medical concepts or draw connections among different situations and conditions. Only 17.7% (99/560) of the questions were at the evaluate level, in which users asked other OHC members to help them make decisions or judgments. Notably, OvCa treatment was the most popular topic of interest among all the questions, regardless of the level of learning objectives. Regarding the social support received for different levels of learning objectives, significant differences were found in the advice (F2437.84=9.69; P<.001), opinion (F2418.18=11.56; P<.001), and emotional support (F2395.88=3.24; P=.01), as determined by one-way ANOVA, whereby questions at the evaluate level were more likely to receive advice, opinion, and emotional support than questions at the lower levels. Additionally, receiving social support tends to drive users to increase the cognitive complexity of the learning objective in the next post. Conclusions: Our study establishes that OHCs are promising resources for acquiring knowledge of OvCa. Our findings have implications for designing better OHCs that serve the growing OvCa community.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere39643
JournalJMIR Cancer
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 1 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was supported by awards from the National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health (R01-LM013038). The content is the sole responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. The authors would like to thank the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition for the approval of this project.

Publisher Copyright:
©Yu Chi, Khushboo Thaker, Daqing He, Vivian Hui, Heidi Donovan, Peter Brusilovsky, Young Ji Lee.


  • health information needs
  • knowledge acquisition
  • online health community
  • ovarian cancer
  • social support

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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