Social networks are a significant part of promoting positive adherence to treatment through patient engagement. A recent piece for NEJM Catalyst written by Michele Heisler, MD, MPA, indicates two aspects of social health that often go under-appreciated when engaging patients: life purpose and social connectedness.
Heisler, a Professor of Internal Medicine, Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan, emphasizes how social networks strengthen the potential for engagement along with patients’ baseline health:
People who report having a strong purpose in life live longer and healthier lives than those with a weak purpose … being socially isolated puts you at a higher risk of dying than smoking cigarettes. Receiving social support is clearly a benefit, but people who provide social support to others reap even greater benefits. Helping others helps us in turn gain a greater sense of purpose.
Peer support from not only family and friends, but also others who share a patient’s condition can be a strong force in helping achieve behavioral goals. Peer coaches fill the dual role of both a guide and a friend and also help patients align their behaviors with their long-term treatment plans. Group peer support sessions, including shared medical appointments, also give people being treated the opportunity to ask questions and share their stories with clinicians and fellow patients.
Heisler closes by arguing that peer support is one of the best ways to improve engagement because it gets at the core of medical care – treating the person, not the disease:
Peer support programs can complement other programs to provide that needed support. And they can do so in a way that can also meet very fundamental human needs.