Social Support for Health: An Increased Role in Health Care?
Clayton Velicer, MPH
Social support is vital to health and quality of life, and its absence can be deadlier than smoking cigarettes. Yet, despite its benefits, social support does not have a defined role in the health care system.
Recent news articles suggest that recognition of the importance of social support in health may be on the rise. In January, we wrote a blog highlighting the “hug a day study” which demonstrated that receiving hugs protected people against against flu-like illnesses. This study received wide coverage in the media, including Time magazine, the Washington Post, and the Huffington Post.
Subsequently, two news articles discussed the changing role of how social support is viewed in health care. The Philly News looked at the changing role of the annual physical examination. Melissa Dribben notes the concerns that have been found with the concept of the annual physical:
“Reviewing the data, health economists and medical groups including the American College of Physicians and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have concluded that the standard checkup and battery of routine tests waste money, do not prolong life, and often result in overdiagnosis and unnecessary treatment.”
However, this does not mean that the annual physical are not without benefit. In the article, David Nash, dean of the Jefferson School of Population Health, stated that it is actually the premise of a physical that has changed. It has changed from trying to find evidence of a disease to having a conversation about wellness and prevention. More specifically, this means an opportunity to ask about other factors that impact health including nutrition and personal relationships.
“In the modern era, the physical is a check on social determinants of health. On crime, socioeconomic status, education. We can offer counseling, reinforcement, help with smoking cessation,” said Nash.
An article from the Guardian recently took the concept of incorporated social factors and social support a step further. Ruth Sutherland writes that,
“When someone is diagnosed with a long-term health condition such as cancer or dementia or experiences a stroke, the NHS has a duty to provide the best physical care possible. Every healthcare professional will know that this is vitally important… One aspect of treatment and management that often gets overlooked is relationships.”
A recent National Health Service (NHS) poll backed this belief. Of over 600 people living with a life-limiting health condition or who were disabled, only half received professional support or had their relationships into account effectively. Furthermore, 21% reported they did not feel the support they received had considered their relationships at all. One in four people surveyed reported that their condition negatively impacted their relationships with partners (24%), friends (25%), family (23%) or colleagues (33%).
Fortunately, there may be changes in the lack of focus on social support and relationships in the health care system in the UK. A think tank in the UK called New Philanthropy Capital recently helped release a Best Medicine policy report. This report recommends a government inquiry into how relationships can be better incorporated into the NHS. The article concludes,
“The evidence is clear – strong relationships can improve health outcomes and save money. Health policy needs to catch up with this way of thinking, giving health professionals the tools to take action and reap the rewards for their patients and themselves.”
We’re excited to see greater mainstream coverage on the role of social support and relationships in health care. The high profile coverage of the hug a day study represents a growing interest in sharing the benefits of social support. Meanwhile, the piece from the Philly News reflects an important transition in healthcare. No longer can a physical be about taking routine measurements and tests, but an opportunity to learn about the other factors impacting a patient’s health. Since so little of our time is actually spent in the doctor’s office, having them take time to stress the important influence of social factors office is critically important. Given that social support and our relationships play such an important role, figuring out a way for physicians to emphasis this remains a challenge. We encourage our readers to think and share ideas of ways to further implement the concept of social and peer support into the healthcare system. We will continue to highlight developments in the media and news as this area of health care grows and evolves.