Take a moment and think of all the online communities you’re a part of. For me, there’s Facebook so I can keep up with friends and family; Twitter so I can keep up with celebrities I wish were my friends and family; Pinterest to get recipe and interior design ideas … the list goes on.

Social networking communities keep us connected, help us forge new connections with people we may never meet otherwise, and give us new ways to expand and hone in on our hobbies. There are communities for sports, cooking, traveling — you name it, there’s a network out there for it. But what about ones for healthcare patients?

New research published Monday in Information Systems Research confirms what you probably could have guessed — healthcare-focused social networks can greatly improve care for the patients. By connecting with others, patients can help each other cope with and manage chronic illnesses like diabetes, and share experiences with medications, services and healthcare providers.

The team behind the study, led by Warwick Business School professor Eivor Oborn, Ph.D., found that there is a “critical” need for patients to gain support for their chronic diseases, and that support can be found effectively outside of the healthcare system, through online communities.

“These online communities are providing critical social support for others,” Oborn wrote. “This is also supported by a policy environment where the government wants patients to be empowered and more accountable for their own health. Creating value from patients’ own experiential knowledge is one of the untapped areas of managing chronic disease.”

The networks can provide needed benefits to non-patient healthcare stakeholders as well, Oborn said. The data shared through the communities can help recruit patients for clinical trials, connecting patients with relevant companies and services, and help inform healthcare rating systems.

If that rating part sounds daunting, keep in mind that it’s already happening — online review site Yelp launched its healthcare data pages last year. So patients could share their reviews of healthcare providers — be they good, bad or ugly — through these social networks. But ratings aside, the benefits these patient-centric communities provide still warrant attention.

Loneliness is a persisting problem plaguing the long-term care industry. It can increase readmission rates, cause residents to fall ill, and raise care costs. What if the solution were as simple as giving a resident an iPad, or access to a computer, and allowing them to sign on to a healthcare social network? They’d have people to talk to who understood what they’re going through, and are able to give advice on how to cope.

Healthcare social networks are an emerging field. Patient-focused sites like the senior living-centric Connected Living and Patients Like Me haven’t achieve Facebook or Twitter-sized followings just yet.

But as research on their benefits continues to be published, keep an eye online for patient networks to become a bigger player in the healthcare field. Your residents, and your facility as a whole, could benefit from the connections they offer.

Follow Emily Mongan @emmongan.