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Kaiser Permanente’s Online Community to Provide More Efficient Health Care Services

Updated: Jan 3, 2020

Written by: Larry Goodfellow

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In this article we look at how Kaiser Permanente used online communities to create an efficient and more customer friendly company.

Using Online Communities in your Business

In an article entitled Four Smart Ways to Run Online Communities, featured on Sloan MIT Management Review, authors Ruth L. Williams and Joseph Cothrel examine online communities that have been successful in leading to an increased efficiency within large companies and organizations. They write, “this article explores how four organizations — Kaiser Permanente,, Inc., Sun Microsystems, Inc. and Ford Motor Co. — have created online communities to support their business strategies. Together, these “four ways” suggest the many forms that an online community can be used in businesses today and how to make them work. In this article, we will look at the research done by Williams and Cothrel on the health care provider Kaiser Permanente and how this research could be used as a model for other health regions both here in Canada and abroad, all through the use of online research communities, also called Market Research Online Communities.

When the study was conducted, Kaiser Permanente was the largest nonprofit health organization in the U.S. serving 8 million people, in 8 states. D.C. Kaiser had first started using emerging technology in the early 90’s with a “members only” website for customers to make online appointments, access nursing staff, gain access to health encyclopedia information and participate in moderator led discussion groups. What started as a way to get services on the Internet to make things more convenient turned out to have a far more ambitious goal which was to help patients take charge of their own healthcare.


The key to Kaiser Permanente’s success was functionality. Creating simple features such as online appointments were used to attract users to the site, which would then lead them to more complex but highly valuable interactions. Users could go online to book an appointment as well as chat with an “advice nurse” or join a discussion group that was pertinent to the customer’s needs. Williams and Cothrel write, “this seamless weaving of discussion groups and other online offerings, parallels the organization’s overall effort to provide coordinated and integrated customer care.”

Kaiser Permanente’s Online was continually being improved upon. The online community used member feedback to drive change in regards to looks and site functionality.  Williams and Cothrel state, “the organization gathers feedback directly by asking members to rate the site on a range of attributes and offer suggestions for improvement, and indirectly by collecting data on how members use the site, including which pages are most popular, which services they use most frequently and which discussion groups attract the most members.” The organization created a special group to discuss how the website could be improved upon. Members could suggest new features to be added as well as a place to voice frustration regarding things that they didn’t like about the site.

Customer Focused

The goal of the community is to improve patient outcomes. One of these outcomes is to improve a patient’s “self-efficacy” which is related to an individual’s ability to function at a desired level. “Kaiser is conducting a longitudinal study to assess the impact of discussion groups on self-efficacy, delving into such issues as health functioning, illness intrusiveness (i.e., how much the illness impedes normal life activities), emotional distress and knowledge about the disease and condition,” writes Williams and Cothrel. Kaiser is currently researching whether active participants on their online community are more likely to reach self-efficacy than passive clients.

Discussion groups seek to present a human side to its members. Each discussion group is carefully moderated to ensure success. Moderators range from Kaiser’s health care staff of doctors, pharmacists, doctors, nurses, and educators.  They have also been using “peer moderators” who can volunteer to help facilitate discussions regarding certain topics. Williams and Cothrel state how the HIV discussion group has been challenging yet successful. They write, “The discussion groups enabled Kaiser to reach out to its HIV-positive patients in new ways. Kaiser used a peer moderator to engender trust, encourage participation and plant the seeds of community.”

Relieving Pressure on Limited Resources

Kaiser Permanente shows how online research communities can be used to create a more efficient community based approach to health care services. Saskatchewan faces some of the highest rates of HIV in the western world, long wait lists, and large budget deficits. By employing an online community in the province first by introducing online scheduling for doctor appointments in order to attract users to the site, members could then be directed to find other services that pertain to their situation. Discussion groups regarding an individual’s particular health risk/challenge could be used to alleviate unnecessary doctor’s visits, and allow individuals to find the support and self-efficacy that Kaiser Permanente has sought to achieve.

If your company would like to learn more how an online research community can help drive your company’s growth please feel free to contact us.

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