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Pain Research and Management
Volume 20 (2015), Issue 4, Pages 199-209
Original Article

Can social support work virtually? Evaluation of rheumatoid arthritis patients’ experiences with an interactive online tool

Zlatina Kostova, Maria Caiata-Zufferey, and Peter J Schulz

Copyright © 2015 Hindawi Publishing Corporation. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


BACKGROUND: There is strong empirical evidence that the support that chronic patients receive from their environment is fundamental for the way they cope with physical and psychological suffering. Nevertheless, in the case of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), providing the appropriate social support is still a challenge, and such support has often proven to be elusive and unreliable in helping patients to manage the disease.

OBJECTIVES: To explore whether and how social support for RA patients can be provided online, and to assess the conditions under which such support is effective. An online support tool was designed to provide patients with both tailored information and opportunities to interact online with health professionals and fellow sufferers. The general purpose was to identify where the support provided did – or did not – help patients, and to judge whether the determinants of success lay more within patients – their engagement and willingness to participate – or within the design of the website itself.

METHODS: The present study reports qualitative interviews with 19 users of the tool. A more specific purpose was to elaborate qualitatively on results from a quantitative survey of users, which indicated that any positive impact was confined to practical matters of pain management rather than extending to more fundamental psychological outcomes such as acceptance.

RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: Overall, online learning and interaction can do much to help patients with the everyday stresses of their disease; however, its potential for more durable positive impact depends on various individual characteristics such as personality traits, existing social networks, and the severity and longevity of the disease.