InduShobha Chengalur-Smith, University at Albany – The Reciprocity of Empathy in Online, Health-Based Communities

On University at Albany Week: Sometimes an online community is what you need to get through a tough time.

InduShobha Chengalur-Smith, associate professor of information systems and business analytics, explores how relationships can help during these periods.

InduShobha Chengalur-Smith is a faculty member in the Information Systems & Business Analytics department at the School of Business in the University at Albany, SUNY. She received her Ph.D. from Virginia Tech and prior to joining academia she worked in both the private and the public sectors. Her research interests are in the areas of Virtual Communities, Technology Adoption and Implementation, and Information Quality and Security. She has worked on federally sponsored grants as well as industry-sponsored projects, ranging from best practices in computational thinking to technology implementation. She serves on the Editorial Boards of Information & Management and the ACM Journal of Data and Information Quality and her research has been published in academic journals such as Information Systems Research, European Journal of Information Systems, Journal of the AIS, Journal of Strategic Information Systems, Communications of the AMC, and multiple IEEE Transactions.

The Reciprocity of Empathy in Online, Health-Based Communities


Online communities are an important resource for patients who seek more than relevant information to their health concerns. Although official websites offer trustworthy information, they offer a transactional experience that does not necessarily cater to an individual’s situation or seek to allay anxiety.

My colleagues and I explored how social capital generated in online, health-based discussion boards drive support and companionship activities. Specifically, we used machine learning techniques to explore how cancer patients share about their disease and treatment with each other.

We found that cancer patients sought to exchange social capital through information provision, emotional support and companionship activities within these virtual communities.

The size of the community allows participants to access more and better quality support, because of easy access to greater expertise from people with similar experiences. Further, it is also easier to obtain support when it is most needed, oftentimes in the middle of the night when anxiety tends to be higher.

Instead of just serving as a platform for exchanging information, we found that online healthcare communities play an important role in providing companionship and support. There is a real sense of “paying it forward” even in online environments where human interaction is limited.