Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Expert Insight: Dr. Kevin B. Wright on Social Support and Technology

Professor, Department of Communication
George Mason University

My research over the past 20 years has primarily focused on social support and health outcomes in both face-to-face and computer-mediated contexts. These include studies focused on social support processes and health outcomes in online support groups for people coping with a variety of health issues, including cancer, eating disorders, substance abuse, and a variety of other health issues. Most of these studies have examined how supportive interactions within these groups leads to outcomes such as reduced stress, lower depression, better coping, and increased quality of life. In recent years, I have continued to refine my research in this area by looking specifically at how features of supportive interactions within these groups, such as increased similarity between participants, reduced judgment, increased opportunities for social comparisons, and access to diverse and specialized information helps individuals to cope with health-related issues. Some of the most interesting findings are that some individuals (particularly those with stigmatized health conditions) often perceive that there are deficiencies in their face-to-face support networks in terms of obtaining information, empathy, validation, and understanding. Online support groups help people find others with similar health concerns, and other online support group members are often better able to provide the types of support that people need than members of their face-to-face networks. I have found the optimal matching hypothesis, social comparison theory, and Granovetter’s work on weak tie support to be helpful theoretical frameworks. Dr. Steve Rains (University of Arizona), Emily Peterson (Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University), and I are currently working on a meta-analysis of online social support groups and health outcomes.

However, I have many other interests in health communication. I have published studies dealing with provider-patient interaction issues and patient satisfaction, healthcare worker stress and burnout, cancer survivorship, diet and exercise issues, health and aging, and social media use and depression. I have developed a willingness to communicate about health scale (which I am using in some of my current research) as well as a weak tie support network preference scale.

I have been increasing drawn to the study of medical tourism recently given its increased popularity in the face of rising health insurance costs (including rising out of pocket expenses) in the United States. More people are travelling to Mexico, Europe, and Asia to seek medical services at a reduced rate compared to the U.S. (and also have the opportunity to travel at the same time). Many procedures that are illegal in the U.S. (e.g. such as some stem cell procedures) are available in other countries. Moreover, access to pharmaceutical products that are highly controlled in the U.S. can be purchased over the counter in many countries, and this also provides a motivation for people to engage in “pharmaceutical tourism,” for both good purposes (treating disease) and bad (substance abuse). I have also read about the increase in dental tourism given due to the fact that many Americans have lousy dental plans (or no dental insurance). Mexico offers many dental procedures at around half the price of the U.S. (not to mention the opportunity to relax on the beach after a root canal). We have found that most medical tourism website frame information that makes benefits more prominent while simultaneously downplaying or hiding information about health, financial, and legal risks. I will certainly continue to look at the rewards and risks associated with medical tourism, how people obtain information about these services, and how their decision-making processes when it comes to using these services.

In my most recent research, I have been working with Dr. Erik van Ingen from Tilburg University in the Netherlands. We are analyzing a probability sample of over 6,000 individuals from the Netherlands and how they use both offline and online support networks in terms of coping a with a variety of negative life events (including health issues). I am also working on a study of diet information and fast food consumption in China and Korea and its effects on BMI, depression, and a number of other outcomes.  Finally, Dr. Gary Kreps and I are working on a number of projects dealing with health communication issues with veterans at the Washington D.C. VA Hospital.


Brief Bio

Dr. Kevin B. Wright has over 70 publications, including books, journal articles, and book chapters. In terms of books, his most recent publications include: Health Communication in the 21st Century and Computer-Mediated Communication in Personal Relationships. His research articles appear in numerous journals such as Communication Monographs, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Journal of Communication, Health Communication, Journal of Health Communication, Journal of Applied Communication Research, Journal of Personal and Social Relationships, Communication Quarterly, Communication Studies, and many other publications. He served from 2007 to 2010 as editor of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (ICA). I also serve on numerous editorial boards of 10 communication journals, including Journal of Health Communication, Communication Monographs, and the Journal of Applied Communication Research, and he is a frequent presenter at regional, national, and international communication conferences.

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