Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to examine how participation in an online health community provides for direct benefits in the form of information utility and social support and an indirect influence on perceptions of patient empowerment. Design/methodology/approach: A multi-method approach was conducted involving interviews with moderators of 18 online health communities and a field survey of 153 online health community participants. Findings: Online health community participation leads to direct benefits in the form of information utility and social support and that information utility also helps to shape perceptions of patient empowerment among community participants. Research limitations/implications: This research calls into question the role of online health communities as a support mechanism to empower patients to take ownership over their healthcare treatment. Online health communities support the development of patient empowerment by creating and disseminating information that can be used to gain an understanding of a patient's health condition. Practical implications: Purveyors of online health communities must be able to ensure a high level of engagement among community participants that allows for each member to elicit outcomes such as information utility, while simultaneously guarding against undesirable circumstances that may prohibit a positive experience. Social implications: Medical professionals can utilize the results of this study to develop strategies for incorporating online health communities into patient care. Specifically, medical professionals can use these results to identify relevant communities and engage in information sharing to ensure relevant and accurate information is disseminated to patients as they seek out information concerning their health conditions. Originality/value: As an ever growing segment of the population looks to online health communities for health information seeking and emotional support, we still know very little as to the type of support that is provided by these forums and how benefits obtained from participation help to shape patient empowerment outcomes. This study determined that information utility and social support are two benefits obtained by online health community participants and that information utility also helps to shape perceptions of patient empowerment among community participants. © Emerald Group Publishing Limited.