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Connecting the Social Dots

Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Geri Lynn Baumblatt & Diana Deibel

Diana Deibel

We are social beings. And social connectedness makes us feel safe so that we can relax, sleep, grow, and maintain our health. When people are isolated from others, research shows this leads to a variety of health issues including depression, being ill more often, and having longer-lasting illnesses. 

But it’s a personal and sensitive topic, so people are often don’t volunteer that they’re isolated. People can become isolated at any age for a number of reasons and life changes -- for family caregivers of any age: their social network contracts and as they focus on their family member. And young adults who are heavy users of social media often feel socially isolated. Now that we know social isolation is an underlying contributor and cause of un-health — how might we address it?
It started with one exercise class...
“Karen” age 55, takes care of her husband “John,” who has Parkinson’s. For both of them, it became hard to go out, to see friends, and even good friends came by less. Both Karen and John became more isolated at home. John’s doctor recommended a seated exercise class. They went, and not only did it help his muscle tone and function, but he met others coping with Parkinson’s, and she met other care partners. Soon they were finding other classes and going to 3, even 4 classes a week. Would they have gone to a support group? Maybe, but certainly not as frequently. And it was more natural social connection, and less stigma of needing support.
How can clinicians and care providers address social isolation?
While it feels like there’s not enough time in the day to really get to know patients, just asking 2 or 3 questions at intake can create connection, insights and help identify socially isolation.
Tell people your office wants to continue to know their patients better, and try asking:
    1.     What are your favorite activities/hobbies and how often do you get to do them?
    2.     Who do you most look forward to spending time with?
    3.     Do you volunteer anywhere or are you interested in volunteering?

You could also ask a new question each time patients come in — or have them fill out a 3 question survey in reception. This can help you suss out who is in the patient’s social circle (and potentially circle of care) as well as what they care about to proactively make it part of their care plan.
Personalizing social interactions
Does your patient garden, cook, read, play cards or love old movies? Any of these can be leveraged for new social connections. Social workers, websites, the library, or religious organizations often have lectures, book clubs, cooking classes, or volunteer opportunities. No one can be versed in all the local goings-on, but knowing a few organizations that provide free social gatherings can help you know where to point patients, without geography or cost becoming a barrier.
Also, keep in mind that people usually need some help or a good excuse to show up the first time. After all, you need to feel safe to socially engage. So just like you’d help someone set a health goal, action plan this with them. Could a friend or neighbor go with them? Might another patient with similar interests meet them or start a book club with them? Do they need help figuring out how to get there?
Volunteering is a great way to get people out meeting others in the name of doing good. It’s not intimidating to show up; and people feel needed and valuable. And, as a bonus: it’s one of the top things that makes everyone happy. A national survey by the UnitedHealth Group found
    •       76% of people who volunteer feel healthier
    •       94% say it improves their mood
    •       25% say it helps them manage a chronic condition, stay active, and takes their mind off of their own problems
Group appointments and classes
These are another great way to bring people together in the name of health and have them meet, interact, and support each other. What about hosting a stress reduction or better sleep class? New friendships grow out of groups - and people feel they’re not the only ones dealing with a chronic condition or challenge.

How will you help address social isolation with your patients? Share what you try or are thinking of trying. 

Geri Lynn Baumblatt, MA: For the last 20 years, Geri has worked to help people understand health conditions and procedures, orient them to their diagnoses, make more informed decisions about their care, and partner with their care teams.  She oversaw the creation of the Emmi program library, and she regularly speaks and serves on patient engagement, patient experience, health literacy, shared decision making, health design, family caregiving, and heath communication panels for organizations like AHRQ, the Brookings Institute, Stanford Medicine X, and the Center for Plain Language. She serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Patient Experience, is on the board of the Society for Participatory Medicine, and published a chapter in Transformative Healthcare Practice through Patient Engagement (IGI Global). She currently consults on patient engagement, family caregiving, and health communication. Follow her on Twitter @GeriLynn

Diana Deibel is a Senior Voice UX Designer who has worked for years in the healthcare space, crafting connections between patients and clinicians and helping motivate patients on tough topics. You can find her on Twitter, ready to chat @dianadoesthis

Tags: patient engagement, family caregiver, engagement, experience, listening, patient
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