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Problem Statement and Literature Review

  1. Top of page
  2. Problem Statement and Literature Review
  3. Methodology
  4. Findings
  5. Discussion and Conclusion
  6. References

The ubiquitous presence of the Web has changed the landscape of the general public's health information seeking. Approximately 113 million American adults currently search health information online (Fox, 2006) and over 25 million have participated in health-related online communities (Horrigan et al., 2001). Online communities are popular because they not only serve as an alternative information dissemination channel, but provide a social venue that satisfies many of the multidimensional needs of patients and their caregivers - affective, spiritual, cognitive, and behavioral needs (Johnson & Ambrose, 2006).

To understand the nature of health online communities, researchers have analyzed messages posted to certain online communities. Braithwaite et al. (1999) examined 1 month's messages to a disability bulletin board. Their analysis indicates the most frequent category of posting concerned emotional support (40%), followed by information (31.7%), esteem support (18.6%), networking (7.1%) and tangible assistance (2.7%). Similarly, Coulson et al.(2007) found that the members in a Huntington's disease bulletin board most frequently offered informational (56.2%) and emotional support (51.9%), followed by network support (48.4%). Other studies confirm informational support and emotional support are a key function of online communities (e.g., Gooden & Winefield, 2007).

While much work has been done to describe the content exchanged in online health communities, one under-researched question is how people evaluate individual answers posted by other members online. To fill the research gap, this study investigates the criteria question askers use when evaluating fellow users' health answers in a social Q&A site. Like online communities, a social Q&A provides a space where members voluntarily ask and answer questions for one another, but is not limited to a specific topic; Yahoo! Answers, the most popular social Q&A site in the United States, covers various topics including Arts, Environment, Science, and Health. Distinguished from a typical health online community involving a strong sense of belonging tied to a single disease, a social Q&A site accommodates a wider population facing a wide array of health-related problems such as diet, alternative medicine, dental, and women's health. Also, a social Q&A site usually allows even non-members to browse and search posted questions and answers.

Kim, Oh, and Oh (2007) developed a preliminary framework of users' best answer selection criteria in Yahoo! Answers across the topics in general. The framework consists of 7 value categories (content, cognitive, socio-emotional, extrinsic, information source, utility, and general statement) and 24 individual criteria (e.g., accuracy, scope, solution feasibility), each of which represents a specific aspect of an answer people consider when choosing the best answer.

The main purpose of this study is to investigate evaluation criteria people use with regard to online health information, using the general framework developed in Kim, Oh and Oh (2007). Using the same framework allows us to see if important selection criteria used for health-related answers are different from ones for other topics. In fact, an interesting observation discussed in previous study was that even with the small number of samples for each topic category, some distinct patterns of selection criteria appeared across the topics. This study follows up on the observation. In addition, we are interested to see whether particular patterns of behavior observed in the previous studies on online health information seeking appear in the context of social Q&A.

Methodology

  1. Top of page
  2. Problem Statement and Literature Review
  3. Methodology
  4. Findings
  5. Discussion and Conclusion
  6. References

The data collection and analysis methods were replicated from the previous study. In Yahoo! Answers, users are required to select the best answer among many answers posted by fellow users and leave a comment on the best answer to close the question. Closed questions are stored in one place, separated from unresolved questions, to facilitate information retrieval. Under the assumption that the comments reflect the reasons why people select certain answers over others, the study randomly sampled a total of 700 comments from the Health category in Yahoo! Answers in January 2008. Excluded comments were meaningless symbols and simple expressions of appreciation, for example, “Great!” or “Thank you” and finally, 369 comments were available for analysis. Through an inductive content analysis process, the three researchers identified 397 criteria out of the 369 comments.

Findings

  1. Top of page
  2. Problem Statement and Literature Review
  3. Methodology
  4. Findings
  5. Discussion and Conclusion
  6. References

Table 1 shows the best-answer selection criteria distribution related to health questions (For a detailed description of each value and criterion, please refer to Kim, Oh, and Oh (2007)).

Table 1. Best -answer selection criteria distribution in health
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Among 7 value categories, Utility (27%) was considered the most in evaluating answers; this was followed by Socio-emotional Value (26.2%), and General Statement (24.7%). More specifically, the health question askers frequently assess whether the suggested solutions look reasonable or practical (Solution Feasibility; 20.2%) or whether the solutions actually worked when applied (Effectiveness; 6.8%). These two criteria are the most popular ones among the total 24 criteria of the framework and both belong to the Utility category (Figure 1). The next popular criteria -Agreement (6.8%), Emotional support (6%), and Affect (5%) - belong to the Socio-emotional Value category.

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Figure 1. The top 7 criteria among the total 24 criteria across the categories

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The distribution of the criteria in health reveals a similar pattern to that in the topics in general as reported in the previous study, but some differences are notable (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. The comparison of the distribution of the 7 value categories between the topics in general and health

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To highlight similarities, in both studies, Socio-emotional Value (26.2%) is highly considered in selecting the best answers, but the influences of Cognitive Value, Extrinsic Value, and Information Source Value are minor. On the other hand, the uniqueness of the criteria distribution in health is summarized as follows:

  • Utility (27%) is remarkably higher in health than across the topics in general (14.8%).
  • Content Value (8.8%) in health is not considered as important as it is treated in other topics (17.8%).

Supposedly, these discrepancies are due to the types of questions being asked across all the topics versus in health. In the previous study, a large portion of the sampled questions called for others' opinions/thoughts or specific information; for opinion questions, Socio-emotional criteria such as ‘agreement’ or ‘emotional support’ were regarded important and for information questions, Content-related criteria such as ‘accuracy’ were valued. On the other hand, health information seekers often ask questions about their pain or symptoms and receive answers including medical information or suggestions to relieve the pain or treat the symptoms, using Utility as a critical criterion rather than the quality of the content in evaluating the answers.

Discussion and Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Problem Statement and Literature Review
  3. Methodology
  4. Findings
  5. Discussion and Conclusion
  6. References

Ease of access to such a wide user base of people and the openness of the content in a social Q&A site enable health information seekers to easily reach those who have undergone a similar symptom/diseases and receive quick answers for immediate problem solving, but the same characteristics of a social Q&A site might hinder the information seekers from posing too personal or too serious health questions. As a result, compared to a typical online health community that revolves a single disease with a strong sense of community, a social Q&A site facilitates the exchange of rather soft health information. Despite the differences between a typical online community and a social Q&A environment, the dominance of the Utility and Socio-emotional categories as the best answer selection criteria attests that a social Q&A site is another online community that offers informational and emotional support to users. Although health information seekers come to this site mainly to solve a problem at hand, they appreciate answerers' understanding, sympathy, and encouragement.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Problem Statement and Literature Review
  3. Methodology
  4. Findings
  5. Discussion and Conclusion
  6. References
  • Braithwaite, D. O., Waldron, V. R., & Finn, J., (1999). Communication of social support in computer-mediated groups for people with disabilities. Health Communication, 11, 123151.
  • Coulson, N. S., Buchanan, H., & Aubeeluck, A., (2007). Social support in cyberspace: A content analysis of communication within a Huntington's disease online support group. Patient Education and Counseling, 68 (2), 173178.
  • Fox, S. (2006). Online health search 2006. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved February 28, 2008, from: http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIPOnline Health 2006.pdf.
  • Johnson G. J. & Ambrose P. J. (2006). Neo-Tribes: The power and potential of online communities in health care. Communications of the ACM, 49, 107113.
  • Kim, S., Oh, J., & Oh, S. (2007). Best-answer selection criteria in a social Q&A site from the user-centered relevance perspective. Proceedings of the 70th ASIST 2007 Annual Meeting, Milwaukee Wisconsin.
  • Horrigan, J. B., Rainie, L., & Fox, S. (2001). Online communities: Networks that nurture long distance relationships and local ties. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved February 29, 2008 from: http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIPCommunities Report.pdf.
  • Gooden R. J., & Winefield H. R. (2007). Breast and prostate cancer online discussion boards - A thematic analysis of gender differences and similarities. Journal of Health Psychology, 12 (1), 103114.