PatientsLikeMe is an online quantitative personal research platform for patients with life-changing illnesses to share their experience using patient-reported outcomes, find other patients like them matched on demographic and clinical characteristics, and learn from the aggregated data reports of others to improve their outcomes. The goal of the website is to help patients answer the question: “Given my status, what is the best outcome I can hope to achieve, and how do I get there?”
Using a cross-sectional online survey, we sought to describe the potential benefits of PatientsLikeMe in terms of treatment decisions, symptom management, clinical management, and outcomes.
Almost 7,000 members from six PatientsLikeMe communities (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ALS], Multiple Sclerosis [MS], Parkinson’s Disease, human immunodeficiency virus [HIV], fibromyalgia, and mood disorders) were sent a survey invitation using an internal survey tool (PatientsLikeMe Lens).
Complete responses were received from 1323 participants (19% of invited members). Between-group demographics varied according to disease community. Users perceived the greatest benefit in learning about a symptom they had experienced; 72% (952 of 1323) rated the site “moderately” or “very helpful.” Patients also found the site helpful for understanding the side effects of their treatments (n = 757, 57%). Nearly half of patients (n = 559, 42%) agreed that the site had helped them find another patient who had helped them understand what it was like to take a specific treatment for their condition. More patients found the site helpful with decisions to start a medication (n = 496, 37%) than to change a medication (n = 359, 27%), change a dosage (n = 336, 25%), or stop a medication (n = 290, 22%). Almost all participants (n = 1,249, 94%) were diagnosed when they joined the site. Most (n = 824, 62%) experienced no change in their confidence in that diagnosis or had an increased level of confidence (n = 456, 34%). Use of the site was associated with increasing levels of comfort in sharing personal health information among those who had initially been uncomfortable. Overall, 12% of patients (n = 151 of 1320) changed their physician as a result of using the site; this figure was doubled in patients with fibromyalgia (21%, n = 33 of 150). Patients reported community-specific benefits: 41% of HIV patients (n = 72 of 177) agreed they had reduced risky behaviors and 22% of mood disorders patients (n = 31 of 141) agreed they needed less inpatient care as a result of using the site. Analysis of the Web access logs showed that participants who used more features of the site (eg, posted in the online forum) perceived greater benefit.
We have established that members of the community reported a range of benefits, and that these may be related to the extent of site use. Third party validation and longitudinal evaluation is an important next step in continuing to evaluate the potential of online data-sharing platforms.
Keywords: Personal health records, data visualization, personal monitoring, technology, health care, self-help devices, personal tracking, social support, online support group, online health community