Online forums have markedly altered how patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals communicate and connect. Even when miles apart, individuals can establish supportive relationships, share experiences and information, and sometimes simply vent.
BioNews Services, a leading online health, science and research publication company, has been rolling out its own forums, including one for Parkinson’s disease (PD), a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects roughly 1 million U.S. residents, and more than 10 million people worldwide. Moderated by patients and caregivers — nearly all of them BioNews columnists — these forums complement the company’s news and information websites, such as Parkinson’s News Today.
It’s that synergy of science and personal experience that sets BioNews’ forums apart.
“Patient forums are certainly not a new concept, but BioNews has something unique to offer our communities,” said Chris Comish, BioNews’ founder and CEO. “No other company has the ability to deliver such relevant content to our readers and use that as a starting point for driving conversation and discourse. We’ve had some really touching conversations occur, and have seen patients, particularly those newly diagnosed, find sources of hope and inspiration. It’s touched everyone involved.”
The company has introduced nine forums since last January — Parkinson’s was launched last July — with more launching by year’s end. Its plan is to have a forum, customized by moderators, for each of its 60-plus rare disease sites. Every forum requires registration and moderator approval, and offers features such as private messaging and keyword search.
BioNews is working to add multimedia to each forum, including podcasts, YouTube videos, and flash briefings.
Within each forum are categories, also known as subforums. In A Forum for Parkinson’s Disease Caregivers, for example, members can connect with other caregivers and learn news ways to overcome challenges and practice self-care, like those presented here. Other posts examine Parkinson’s caregiving and income loss, and how to speak to a loved one with this disease.
In the subforum Diagnosis Information and General Questions, people newly diagnosed along with their caregivers and friends can ask questions about the disease and find information, all while supporting each other. Discussion topics range from personal reactions to a diagnosis to reasons for a misdiagnosis, like those detailed in this posted article.
The Living with Parkinson’s Disease subforum is a place for those who understand the day-to-day challenges the disease poses, including difficulties with walking and speaking. It’s also a resource for information about living with a chronic illness. There are posts about disease progression, for instance, and books by those with Parkinson’s about their journey.
Members can use the Parkinson’s Disease Symptoms space for resources to help them understand and cope with how Parkinson’s uniquely affects them. Because symptoms vary from person to person, the subforum is particularly popular. Subjects include trouble rolling over in bed, difficulty swallowing water, improving handwriting, and the effects of dyskinesia — those uncontrolled and involuntary muscle movements.
In Parkinson’s Disease Alternative Treatments, participants can ask questions and share information about alternative or experimental therapies they’ve tried or are curious about, with the proviso that many suggestions are not science based, and that effects can vary. There are posts about medical cannabis, for example, gluten-free diets and rosemary essential oil.
The subforum Parkinson’s Disease Medications is for sharing information and experiences related to therapies, including levodopa and Xadago (safinamide). The platform Parkinson’s Research News keeps members apprised of the latest study and treatment advances. Members can connect with researchers, healthcare professionals, and other patients. Posts range from a study about sex and Parkinson’s to the preclinical results on a molecule that might reduce toxic protein buildups in the brain and reverse motor symptoms.
In Parkinson’s Disease and Exercise, participants can learn about, and share the benefits and challenges of, exercising. Entries touch on specific forms of exercise like swimming, or being overwhelmed by the volume of exercise required. Members can use the Parkinson’s Disease Awareness and Advocacy subforum to learn how to educate others about Parkinson’s, and to discover current and future efforts to heighten disease awareness.
In all, Jean Mellano, who is the Parkinson’s forum co-moderator along with Ally MacGregor, said she and others have found that levity is often most effective in disease management.
“Laughter is the best medicine,” said Mellano, who was diagnosed in 2015. “Having a sense of humor about the absurdity of some PD symptoms can help with the healing process. If we can share our stories with others, it may lessen the embarrassment caused by our symptoms.”
To help generate conversation, forum moderators regularly post topics within subforums. Sometimes the topic is based on a new column or news article. Other times, it’s something about day-to-day life. Moderators also post about their own lives, for instance, sharing thoughts on movies they’ve seen or their vacation photos. Some forums also have groups, both public and private subforum offshoots.
The forums’ framework was mostly developed by Kevin Schaefer with help from the social media team at BioNews. Schaefer is the company’s community development manager and an SMA forum moderator. He’s excited about the forums, and their growth and future potential.
“It’s just really cool to see a community evolving in each of them,” said Schaefer, who has SMA type 2. “They are as much about fostering community as they are about providing information. We want to do everything we can to engage with our members.”