Background: Clinical practice variation that results in poor patient outcomes remains a pressing problem for health care organizations. Some evidence suggests that a key factor may be ineffective internal and professional networks that limit knowledge exchange among health care professionals. Virtual communities have the potential to overcome professional and organizational barriers and facilitate knowledge flow.
Objective: This study aimed to explore why health care professionals belong to an exemplar virtual community, ICUConnect. The specific research objectives were to (1) understand why members join a virtual community and remain a member, (2) identify what purpose the virtual community serves in their professional lives, (3) identify how a member uses the virtual community, and (4) identify how members used the knowledge or resources shared on the virtual community.
Methods: A qualitative design, underpinned by pragmatism, was used to collect data from 3 asynchronous online focus groups and 4 key informant interviews, with participants allocated to a group based on their posting behaviors during the previous two years—between September 1, 2012, and August 31, 2014: (1) frequent (>5 times), (2) low (≤5 times), and (3) nonposters. A novel approach to focus group moderation, based on the principles of traditional focus groups, and e-moderating was developed. Thematic analysis was undertaken, applying the Diffusion of Innovation theory as the theoretical lens. NCapture (QRS International) was used to extract data from the focus groups, and NVivo was used to manage all data. A research diary and audit trail were maintained.
Results: There were 27 participants: 7 frequent posters, 13 low posters, and 7 nonposters. All participants displayed an external orientation, with the majority using other social media; however, listservs were perceived to be superior in terms of professional compatibility and complexity. The main theme was as follows: “Intensive care professionals are members of ICUConnect because by being a member of a broader community they have access to credible best-practice knowledge.” The virtual community facilitated access to all professionals caring for the critically ill and was characterized by a positive and collegial online culture. The knowledge found was credible because it was extensive and because the virtual community was moderated and sponsored by a government agency. This enabled members to benchmark and improve their unit practices and keep up to date.
Conclusions: This group of health care professionals made a strategic decision to be members of ICUConnect, as they understood that to provide up-to-date clinical practices, they needed to network with colleagues in other facilities. This demonstrated that a closed specialty-specific virtual community can create a broad heterogeneous professional network, overcoming current ineffective networks that may adversely impact knowledge exchange and creation in local practice settings. To address clinical practice variation, health care organizations can leverage low-cost social media technologies to improve interprofessional and interorganizational networks.
J Med Internet Res 2019;21(11):e14068