When story-telling makes a difference

More and more individuals are turning to the Internet to look for support and information regarding health-related issues. In online health forums, people write and reply to health related narratives. These narratives may help patients cope with crisis situations by expressing emotions, receiving support, finding recognition in stories from peers, and using stories as a source for inspiration. These processes may have beneficial effects on patients’ wellbeing. However, there also seem to be negative sides of participation, such as being confronted with negative stories.

Studies aimed to assess the effects of online support group participation on psychological wellbeing showed mixed findings. Some studies showed positive effects, such as decreased depression, reactions to pain, and stronger positive emotions. Others found no effect at all, or reported negative effects. Due to mixed findings, there is a need for studies explaining why and when online health communities are beneficial for patients.

With the current project we aim to learn more about the relationship between online forum participation and patients’ wellbeing. Different methods from both quantitative (Communication Science) and qualitative (Linguistics) approaches will be applied. Specifically, by combining different methods we aim to answer the questions when, why and for whom online forum participation is beneficial.


The current research project involves online forums for breast cancer patients. Research has shown that breast cancer patients are among the most active seekers of online support compared to other patient groups. A longitudinal survey (three panel studies) monitors patients’ wellbeing, and assesses moderating factors such as coping strategies, illness characteristics and social support from family and friends. In addition, these findings will be connected to the online content. Online health discussions will be analyzed by means of qualitative and quantitative approaches, such as automated text analyses, conversation analyses, and discursive psychology.


The present project extends current knowledge about interactions in online health forums and increases our understanding of what the effects of these interactions are. Furthermore, new insides from different research perspectives will help us to create a powerful method to analyze content on online health forums. In addition the aim of this project is to share our research findings with patient associations to make their online assistance more effective.

Research team:


Drs. Anika Batenburg


Dr. Joyce Lamerichs



Ilse van Hooff


Maartje Groenewegen