The Influence of Perceived Social Presence on the Willingness to Communicate in Mobile Medical Consultations: Experimental Study

Background: With the rise of online health care service, there is growing discussion on the relationship between physicians and patients online, yet few researchers have paid attention to patients’ perception of social presence, especially its influence on their willingness to communicate (WTC).

Objective: The goal of the research is to investigate the influence of perceived social presence (PSP) on WTC in mobile medical consultations.

Methods: Participants living in Yunnan province during the period of middle to high risk of COVID-19 infection were recruited via the internet. They were assigned randomly into 2 groups interacting with a virtual physician presenting high and low levels of social presence and then asked to complete a questionnaire. Based on the theoretical framework, the study puts forward a model evaluating the relationships among participants’ PSP, communication apprehension (CA), self-perceived communication competence (SPCC), and willingness to communicate about health (WTCH) in the computer-mediated communication between virtual physicians and patients.

Results: In total 206 (106 in group 1 and 100 in group 2) valid samples were gathered (from 276 log-ins) and 88.8% (183/206) of them were aged 18 to 44 years, which approximately resembles the age distribution of the main population engaging in online medical consultation in China. Independent t test shows that there is significant difference between the PSP of the 2 groups (P=.04), indicating a successful manipulation of social presence. The total effect of PSP on WTCH is 0.56 (P<.001), among which 74.4% is direct effect (P<.001). Among the indirect effects between PSP and WTCH, the mediating effect of SPCC accounts for 68.8% (P<.001) and the sequential mediating effect of CA→SPCC accounts for 19.2% (P<.001), while the mediating effect of CA alone is not significant (P=.08).

Conclusions: This study provides a comprehensible model, demonstrating that PSP is an important antecedent of WTCH, and the sequential mediating effect of CA and SPCC found in this study also proves that in the environment of online mobile medical services, CA cannot affect communication directly. The findings will provide some practical inspiration for the popularization of online medical service, especially for the promotion of online physician-patient communication.