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J Med Internet Res. 2014 May 14;16(5):e126. doi: 10.2196/jmir.2684.

Anonymity versus privacy: selective information sharing in online cancer communities.

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VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands.



Active sharing in online cancer communities benefits patients. However, many patients refrain from sharing health information online due to privacy concerns. Existing research on privacy emphasizes data security and confidentiality, largely focusing on electronic medical records. Patient preferences around information sharing in online communities remain poorly understood. Consistent with the privacy calculus perspective adopted from e-commerce research, we suggest that patients approach online information sharing instrumentally, weighing privacy costs against participation benefits when deciding whether to share certain information. Consequently, we argue that patients prefer sharing clinical information over daily life and identity information that potentially compromises anonymity. Furthermore, we explore whether patients' prior experiences, age, health, and gender affect perceived privacy costs and thus willingness to share information.


The goal of the present study is to document patient preferences for sharing information within online health platforms.


A total of 115 cancer patients reported sharing intentions for 15 different types of information, demographics, health status, prior privacy experiences, expected community utility, and privacy concerns.


Factor analysis on the 15 information types revealed 3 factors coinciding with 3 proposed information categories: clinical, daily life, and identity information. A within-subject ANOVA showed a strong preference for sharing clinical information compared to daily life and identity information (F1,114=135.59, P=.001, η(2)=.93). Also, adverse online privacy experiences, age, and health status negatively affected information-sharing intentions. Female patients shared information less willingly.


Respondents' information-sharing intentions depend on dispositional and situational factors. Patients share medical details more willingly than daily life or identity information. The results suggest the need to focus on anonymity rather than privacy in online communities.


Health 2.0; anonymity; cancer; confidentiality; online systems; privacy

[Indexed for MEDLINE]
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