In the Digital Age, online communities bring diverse people together for common goals and causes. Doctor-patient and peer support in the medical field rank among the top of such groups — underlined when lives are at stake.
Virtual reality also has the potential to support a social media community, as championed by one of VR’s biggest proponents, Dr. Chuck Webster. Call him a hybrid. In his words, he is “an industrial engineer who went to medical school.”
“Industrial engineers study systems — in my case, healthcare systems — and apply various techniques and technologies to improve these systems,” he said. “Industrial engineering is, in a sense, a degree in workflow. For decades I’ve been involved in designing software to improve workflows: efficiency, effectiveness and experience. Workflows are stories.”
Through Webster’s advocacy, expertise and love for VR, he wants to give like-minded people the opportunity to discuss topics related to health and technology in social VR. This naturally brings him in online contact with healthcare providers who want to tie their social networks together online to make things happen.
“Our shared goal is understanding healthcare systems, subsystems and supersystems,” Webster said. “A related goal is exploring social virtual reality as a new social media platform and how it can complement other platforms such as Twitter and tweet chats.”
A short video from Webster gives a flavor of his animated smart cities and smart healthcare connection.
“The crazy cool thing is, when wearing a VR headset, you feel exactly as if you are physically present together in this cartoon landscape,” Webster said.
He delivers his message in unconventional ways, certainly for traditional online groups.
“I haven’t mastered this yet, but occasionally I try to participate in tweet chats ‘in-world’ — inside VR,” Webster said. “I can monitor hashtagged tweets OK, but the main problem is lack of keyboard. So, I have to hunt and peck on a virtual keyboard with a hand-held controller. That’s not optimal.
“Part of what is helpful is cross-indexing folks I meet in VR with other social media platforms,” he said. “It seems like a connection between platforms may be useful to build new communities.”
Webster numbers among his connections groups of doctors, which are coming to grasp their own non-VR social media networks and how they relate across generations.
Dr. Helen Madamba is an OB-GYN infectious disease specialist at Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu City, the Philippines. Active online, she noted “high penetration of social media in the Philippines, where there are a lot of online communities and social networks.”
Madamba has seen increasing numbers of the millennial generation — born between 1980 and 2000 — in postgraduate conferences, meetings of medical societies and medical education conventions.
“They seem so different from the previous generation in that they were born into the internet technology and have different resources at their fingertips compared with older generations,” she said. “They are motivated by different incentives. It has been said that millennials will work on causes that they find meaningful.
“A career for millennials is a journey of self-discovery,” Madamba said. “From the millennials I teach, I learn when you involve them in projects that can potentially change society, they will work wonders with the resources that they have and get the job done.”
Online communities, particularly Facebook groups, are great for focusing and acting on causes. Once such collection is Treating Cancer: Hope V. Hype. Another Facebook community is close to Madamba: #TEACHCebu.
“Initially made up of medical students and their faculty, little by little we added local government unit employees, social workers, psychologists, drug enforcers — and the family is still growing on Facebook,” she said. “It is good to find support online when it becomes difficult to find face-to-face encounters.”
Mutual needs, mutual support
Online communities form out of shared interests and passions. The greater the shared need, the stronger the bond.
“Sometimes when you want to keep connected, you form a Facebook group and post additional announcements there,” Madamba said. “It makes setting meetings and future appointments easier.
“Despite busy schedules — we are all busy — and whatever we are going through, we are there for each other in our social media groups,” she said.
Online social networks help achieve common goals through information exchange that benefits those within the community and beyond.
“These communities become more effective when people respond to those who join,” Madamba said. The joiners feel a sense of belongingness. It’s a shared mental model. When people think alike, it’s easier to connect with each other.
“The power of a community depends on the passion and commitment of its members,” she said.
Madamba recalled two words that stuck with her from a parent: “manginlabot,” meaning to be involved, and “obligation.”
“As a part of a community, it is our obligation to be involved in matters affecting us, such as values, protection, development and participation,” she said.
“Social media has changed the way we interact with each other,” Madamba said. “It breaks barriers of disability, geography, economics and opportunity. Social networks can make things happen when we allow click — online engagement — to evolve to brick — face-to-face action plans.”
Engineer-Doctor Webster compared social media networks — conventional or venturing into VR — to a salon, quoting Wikipedia:
“A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.”