Change the world


Spurred on by a desire to better manage and cope with a debilitating auto-immune disease, Eldridge van der Westhuizen (46) will receive his PhD in Information Technology this month for his thesis on apomediation.

The ability of social networking sites to support apomediation specifically for individuals with autoimmune disease, led to his PhD topic “A framework to assess apomediation in social networking sites: a case of individuals with autoimmune disease”.

Apomediation is the process of disintermediation where the former intermediaries (or doctors) are functionally replaced by apomediaries – people or tools that stand by to direct a patient to high quality information or services.  In his research, Eldridge focused on social networking sites, like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, looking at their core features and the development of a health technology assessment tool.

The idea of a lifelong personal health record was the focus of his master's degree which he obtained in 2011, choosing this line of study in a bid to help his mother Avril, who was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of 27. It was an endless battle for her to have to inform new doctors about her condition, procedures done, medication taken, etc.

In 2015, Eldridge was diagnosed with Hashimoto Thyroiditis, a disease where the body attacks the thyroid gland, causing many symptoms such as inflammation, fatigue, weight gain, muscle weakness, sensitivity to cold, depression, etc. This required a lifestyle change to adapt to his new condition. “I reached out to many online peer support groups that had similar conditions to what I have. These online groups provided me with so much information and support which helped me to manage my condition better.”

In 2016, he took up his PhD studies, focusing on how patients with auto-immune diseases can get help from peer support groups online and how this, in conjunction with a physician, could guide a patient to better health.

“When my mother was diagnosed with her disease in the 1970s, the internet was not available, let alone online support groups. She received treatment and procedures that, in hindsight, were not good for her. If online support groups were available to turn to, additional guidance could have helped her earlier in her struggle and could have led to better managed health. This was my chance to research this area and assist other patients with similar battles”. 

It took Eldridge seven years to complete his research, juggling extremely demanding jobs in IT in the Higher Education sector and being a husband and a father to three daughters.

His PhD journey started with Professor Dalenca Pottas as his promoter and later Dr Sue Petratos joined as his co-promoter. They understood his work challenges and gently guided him during his research. “They are excellent in what they do, and this would not have been possible without them. Many times, as a researcher, you go along the wrong path, but my promoters showed me where I needed to focus and what to do to achieve my goals. They are one in a million, and I thank them for their patience and guidance”.

“After my mom passed away in 2020, I left my position as Director of IT at the Durban University of Technology and returned to Port Elizabeth to support my dad and start my own IT consulting business. Fortunately, I could then make additional time for my studies and completed my research in 2022.”

While doing research in the health informatics and IT fields, he learned that it is okay to get second opinions by talking to friends and getting as much input and information as possible regarding your condition.

“You don't always have to trust the doctor's diagnosis and their way of healing. It is your life, and you only have one. Make sure that you are 100% in agreement with something and have all the facts available.’’

Unfortunately, the downside of this is false information.

“It is your job to ensure what can be believed and what can’t. Hopefully my research provides the tools to assist with this. Take time and work through all information and make informed decisions. A doctor is there to guide you in the correct direction, and it should be a shared journey toward health with input from both” says Eldridge.

He will receive his PhD at the morning graduation session on 26 April 2023.