New PhD-Project – The Pros and Cons of Using Online Health Information

Published on October 10th, 2016 – An increasing amount of cancer patients visit the Internet for information in addition to consulting their health care provider. On the Internet, patients have the option to find information on many different platforms, such as online libraries, blogs or discussion groups. As of yet, little is known about the patients’ motives to visit these different platforms and differences in content on the platforms. Moreover, it is unknown how online health information obtained from these different platforms influences information processing when consulting a health care provider. Using big-data analyses, experiments and role-play, this new PhD project conducted by Remco Sanders aims to gain insight into these different platforms, patients’ motives to visit these online platforms as well as how this information influences patient-provider communication.

This research will be conducted in the context of cancer. In this area online health information and the health care provider are the main sources of information for patients. In this PhD- project, a two-phased approach (totaling four studies) using big-data approaches, survey and an experimental design will be used to help us to understand (a) the content offered on four different platforms, i.e., medical information library, expert questions and discussion groups (b) patients’ motives to obtain information from these different platforms, (c) how user characteristics differ across the different platforms, and (d) how online health information obtained from these different platforms influences information processing when consulting a health care provider. Data will be gathered from the largest Dutch website on cancer information (

During the first phase, online health information from will be analyzed using topic modeling to gain insight into what content is available and discussed among users. From interpersonal communication literature we know that patients want to understand their disease (cognitive needs) and want to feel understood (affective needs). Patients might also have these needs while searching online. We will therefore use the machine learning approach to analyze the cognitive and affective level of the information. Third, both the topics as well as the needs will be linked to user characteristics using an implemented online survey.

Patients often use online health information to prepare for their consultation with their health care provider. How online health information and information given by the provider during consultation influences information processing is the focus of the second phase. When both sources of information are in line with each other, we expect that positive (synergetic) effects occur (i.e., improved recall of information, needs fulfillment). However, when the information is contradictory, a boomerang effect might occur. This notion will be tested using an experiment using a role-played consultation.

For more information, please contact Remco Sanders ( / link)

PhD Candidate: Remco Sanders, MSc.
Supervisors: prof. dr. Julia van Weert, prof. dr. Rens Vliegenthart & dr. Annemiek Linn

Starting date: 01 September 2016
End date: 01 September 2020