University at Buffalo Study Shows Social Network Members Differentially Equipped to Provide Health-related Support

Published June 11, 2015

When coping with a serious illness, people selectively activate network ties for tailored health-related information, resources and support according to a recent study by researchers at the University at Buffalo and Columbia University.

Social networks are a primary vehicle through which people gain access to health-related information, resources, and support that helps people cope with illness and manage their health care.  However, much of the previous research focuses on support received from people’s pre-existing social network ties.

“At times of unanticipated and extremely elevated support needs people may activate pre-existing network members for some forms of support, but also need to form new ties to access tailored information and resources,” said Elizabeth Gage-Bouchard, PhD, assistant professor in the University at Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions, Department of Community Health and Health Behavior. “In this study we use the case of pediatric cancer to examine the kinds of supportive resources parents access through their preexisting social networks, as well as the types of support received from new network ties formed in response to their child’s illness.”

Published in the international and peer-reviewed journal Social Science and Medicine, the study conducted in-depth interviews with 80 parents of pediatric cancer patients to collect social network data.  Egocentric network maps were used to examine differences in the nature of support from different kinds of network ties.

“Our findings show that after a child’s cancer diagnosis, parents received support from a broad portfolio of network members, which included pre-existing network ties to friends and families as well as the formation of new ties to other cancer families and health-related professionals.  Family, friends, and neighbors offered logistical support that aided balancing preexisting work and household responsibilities with new obligations.  Parents formed new ties to other families coping with cancer for tailored health-related emotional and informational support. Health-related professionals served as network brokers, who fostered the development of new network ties and connected parents with supportive resources.”

In addition to Gage-Bouchard, co-authors of the study include Susan LaValley, a PhD student in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior at University at Buffalo, Christy Panagakis, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at University at Buffalo, and Rachel Shelton, PhD, an assistant professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.