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Primary care plays a critical role in a patient’s overall health. However, outside of clinical care people are left on their own to manage complex health behaviors needed to live healthily. That’s where peer support comes in! Here you can find information and resources that can help primary care providers and practices promote and integrate peer support.

What is Peer Support

Peer support refers to the practical, social, and emotional support from a person sharing similar experiences with a disease or condition. People with a common condition are able to share knowledge and experiences – including some that many health workers do not have.

Diagram of the 5 Key Functions of Peer Support
Diagram of the 5 Key Functions of Peer Support

Peer support is frequent, ongoing, accessible and flexible. Peer support can take many forms – phone calls, text messaging, group meetings, home visits, going for walks together, and even grocery shopping. It complements and enhances other health care services by creating the emotional, social and practical assistance necessary for managing the disease and staying healthy.

Peer support has five key functions:

  • Being there
  • Assistance in daily management
  • Social and emotional support
  • Linkages to clinical care and community resources
  • Ongoing support, extended over time

In a patient-centered primary care setting, primary care providers can initiate behavior changes by telling patients what to do while peer support can help them to implement and sustain those needed behaviors in daily living.

How does peer support enhance primary care?

Peer support complements and enhances primary care services by providing practical, social and emotional support to help people do the things needed in order to live healthily. In the case of chronic disease management that often requires complex behavior changes; routine visits with a primary care provider can help a person with a condition outline steps for reaching their self management goals while peer support can help implement, troubleshoot, and sustain those behaviors needed. Thus, peer support strategies can be used for a variety of health-promoting behaviors, including medication adherence, stress management, diet, exercise, smoking cessation, and management of chronic diseases like diabetes.

Additional ways in which peer support can enhance primary care is through outreach and engaging high priority groups.  Because peer supporters frequently come from communities served by primary care organizations, they provide an implicit social network linkage between those communities and the primary care team.  At the same time, research has shown that flexible, proactive peer support programs can reach over 90% of “hard to reach” groups who all too often fail to get the clinical and health promotion services they need (Fisher et al. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2009;163: 225-232).

“Now I can practice medicine again.”

A physician from Laredo, TX commenting on the success of a clinic-based peer support program

What can I do as a primary care provider to promote peer support?

Given the limited time that you as a primary care provider can spend with your patients, you can fill this gap by connecting patients with existing peer support resources in your practice, helping the development of peer support programs in your care setting, referring to peer support resources within the broader community.

Also, patient-provider relationship is influential to the health of your patients. Rather than focusing on encouraging patients to simply follow advice, you as a primary care provider can promote peer support by recognizing its importance to your patients and actively encouraging your patients to be engaged in peer support. In this way, you can foster patients’ individual growth and ultimately improve outcomes. Empowering patients to be more involved in their health and health care is key across the continuum of care.

Connect patients with existing peer support programs in your practice

Depending on the health care system, peer support programs may already be in existence. Here are some steps to help you connect patients with peer support programs in your practice.

  • Check with your office support staff and care team members to see if your practice offers programs/services that allows patients to connect with others experiencing similar challenges.
  • Learn more about these peer support programs and how you can refer patients to them.
  • Actively encourage or recommend your patients to participate in these peer support programs.

 Help develop peer support programs in your practice

If peer support programs are not available in your practice, you can create a program focused on peer support. Notably, the benefits of peer support are in line with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), which aims to lower health care costs and improve quality of care.

While planning to do so, remember to carefully assess your organizational readiness to start a peer support program. This normally involves a comprehensive evaluation of available staff time, funding and other resources, as well as support from key stakeholders and your community collaborators.

Refer to peer support programs in the community

If a primary care setting lacks a preexisting peer support program or does not have the resources to create one, you and your care team can help identify peer support programs outside their communities. We recommend asking your community collaborators if they are currently offering peer support programs. You can also inquire the local health department or major professional association such as Association of Diabetes Care & Education Specialists for recommendations.

You can also contact us if you need help verifying if the peer support programs identified can meet the needs of your patients.

Having identified credible peer support programs, it is important to create and update a community resources directory that providers can easily access in order to be able to connect their patients easily.

How can peer support be integrated with a patient-centered medical home?

In the current landscape of health care, the concept of a patient-centered medical home (PCMH) is gaining traction as a way to improve health care in America by transforming how primary care is organized and delivered. Peer support in nature is a patient-centered approach that coincides with the fundamentals of PCMH and can be integrated with PCMH.

Successful cases like the Vermont Blueprint for Health, a statewide public-private initiative, have demonstrated the feasibility and benefits to include peer supporters known as community health teams in the care team. Particularly, peer support can enhance community outreach and facilitate patient-provider communication and shared decision making. In some scenarios, people who are trained to provide peer support (peer supporters) can also be helpful in providing simple preventive care such as screening and patient education.

In 2011, Peers for Progress launched a project called Diabetes management through peer support and community outreach from the patient-centered medical home, funded by the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation’s (BMSF) Together on Diabetes Initiative. The purpose of this project is to demonstrate and evaluate the contributions of peer support as a strategy for community outreach, engagement, and patient-centered care for diabetes management.

Peer Support in the Patient-Centered Medical Home and Primary Care (PDF)

Peer Support in the Patient-Centered Medical Home and Primary Care