Benefits and challenges experienced by professional facilitators of online support groups for cancer survivors

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Objectives:The primary aim of the study was to identify specific strengths and challenges of facilitating online cancer support groups relative to face-to-face groups through the use of deductive qualitative analysis. A secondary aim was to quantitatively validate the identified strengths and challenges.Methods:To better understand how facilitators' roles in online support groups (OSGs) might differ from face-to-face (F2F) support groups, we compared the professional experiences of facilitators from both F2F and OSGs at The Wellness Community. Transcripts from online supervision sessions among OSG facilitators were analyzed using deductive qualitative analysis. A pool of items was developed to measure the primary themes derived from the qualitative analysis and administered to a sample of both F2F and online cancer support group facilitators.Results:Strengths and weaknesses of online support group leaders could be captured in three categories: group processes, structural elements, and facilitator roles. Positive perceptions of group processes, structural elements, and facilitator roles were significantly higher among F2F facilitators than OSG facilitators.Conclusion:OSG facilitators described their online groups as helpful to participants and identified some aspects of online groups that promoted more active processing of cancer experiences among group participants. Additionally, they reported that learning how to facilitate an online group strengthened their skills in facilitating face-to-face groups. However, OSGs do appear to present significant challenges to facilitation. These challenges are discussed with particular attention given to ways in which online facilitators have developed “work-arounds” for addressing shortcomings of the internet as a medium for delivering psychosocial services.

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