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Social Support Improves Health Outcomes

Janet was disabled, suffering from chronic emphysema, aging and thousands of miles away from her family. She relied heavily on her church to maintain independence and ensure that her basic needs were taken care of.

While they did their best to help her whenever they could, she still struggled with basic day-to-day needs. Getting groceries, paying bills, and housecleaning were close to impossible, and she didn’t want to be a burden on those who generously offered her support. She had to choose between independence and her most basic needs. She felt trapped.

Janet’s story is far from unique. In fact, about half of all adults in the U.S., about 117 million individuals, suffer from at least one chronic health condition and need assistance of some kind. With aging and chronic demographic shifts, this rate continues to climb, creating a serious cost burden for the family and the healthcare system. 86% of all U.S. health care costs can be attributed to delivering care for individuals with one or more chronic medical condition.

To compound the issue, the numbers in family caregivers available to support patients are dwindling. In 2010, caregiver support ratio (ratio of family caregivers to patients) to each person in need was 7 to 1. That number is expected to fall to 4 to 1 by 2030.

As a result, family caregivers and organizations are turning to digital solutions for answers.

The Trend Towards Digital Care Solutions

Today’s healthcare consumer in need of care is eager to find more efficient ways of being care for. According to PwC HRI, 82% of consumers report they are open to virtual support or non-traditional care. The market has responded by providing lower cost solutions that support chronically ill populations. Solutions such as those that help patients learn about their condition, book doctor appointments, or manage their symptoms are now readily available with a quick download.

In fact, the global patient engagement market is expected to be a $16 billion market by 2020. The U.S. market is particularly ripe for digital patient engagement solutions, thanks to regulatory pressures and a healthcare market that is evolving from volume to value. Coupled with an aging population that’s experiencing more chronic illness, it’s easy to understand why the caregiver solutions market is forecasted to be valued above $72 billion by 2020.

Challenges Faced

As with any new product or technology, patient engagement solutions face challenges. For example, while gamification engages patients in terms of downloads and interest, it doesn’t produce the consistent behavioral results required for individuals with chronic conditions to improve their health. In fact, there is limited evidence to suggest that gamification leads to greater adherence to physician based guidelines for healthcare or fitness in the long-term. Users also frequently discontinue using it. For example, while over 60% of mobile phone users [1] in the U.S. have a health or fitness app downloaded on their phone, about 40% percent report they discontinued using them out of a lack of interest [1]. Gamification just doesn’t work.

Another key element is also missing from them—social support.

The Key Role Social Support Plays in Health Outcomes

Healthcare is about people helping people. According to meta-analysis of over 50 studies, lack of social support was found to be a contributing factor in about a third of premature deaths in the U.S. Research also shows that social integration, support systems, and community engagement are the microcosm of a larger systematic problem where the chronically ill lack a strong social support system to stay on track with their health.

Lack of adherence is a huge cost driver. About half of chronic patients do not adhere to care plans resulting in $300 billion in costs to the U.S. healthcare system each year. And majority (~60%) of the problem is behavioral – driven by forgetfulness and procrastination.

But, the power of community – social support – can make a difference. A CVS-sponsored study revealed that chronically ill patients were 67% more likely to adhere to their protocol with social support, thereby reducing complications. Other research [2] concludes that social support is an answer to social isolation, which in turn contributes to increased levels of anxiety and depression. Cancer and HIV patients have proven that social isolation is a significant barrier to healthy behavior adherence [2]. Eating more fruits and vegetables, exercising, and eliminating unhealthy habits like drinking and smoking are also affected by a lack of social support.

The question is, why is social support so important when dealing with health?

A Canadian report by the Federal, Provincial and Territorial Advisory Committee on Population Health put it best, “Support from family, friends and acquaintances could be very important in helping solve problems and dealing with adversity” and that “the caring and respect that occurs in social relationships, and the resulting sense of satisfaction and well-being, seem to act as a buffer against health problems.”

Feeling cared for, loved, and able to reach out when help is needed improves self-esteem and in general makes people happier. This lowers stress levels and contributes to life satisfaction even for those who face terminal illness. Even so, finding convenient outlets to express social support is a bit more challenging.

Studies consistently show that social media has the potential to play a powerful role in providing social support. However, there are challenges in traditional social media platforms, such as Facebook, that prevent a clear path for family caregivers and organizations.

How Rallyhood Enables Social Support

Rallyhood, however, is unique. It is a digital platform that empowers patients, caregivers and their care circle through social connectivity, collaboration and support. Individuals who wish to support their friend, family, or co-worker going through a health journey can communicate and coordinate support tasks in a completely private social space. They can control who is invited to their “Rally” and organizations can even create branded communities to manage the experience and engagement, unlike in Facebook.

Patients and the care circle use Rallyhood’s suite of consumer friendly digital tools for social, practical and financial support such as a message wall and photo gallery for sharing memories and words of encouragement; task organizer and a shared calendar; a file system for sharing important medical or nutritional information automatically populated by the organization; and a place to raise funds. These features promote social support in an environment most are familiar with—within a social network.

Janet, who we mentioned at the outset, could have utilized Rallyhood to coordinate assistance with her care circle for day-to-day tasks like paying bills, picking up medications and scheduling doctor’s appointments. Instead of being limited by her condition or feeling guilty about requesting help from an already burdened church support group, she could have simply posted her needs within a group that was ready to help any way they could. This could have contributed to positive mental health, reduced stress and improved the quality of her life.

References:

AARP "The Aging of the Baby Boomer and the Growing Care Gap"

PwC HRI: “Healthcare’s New Entrants: Who will be the industry’s Amazon.com?” – 2014.

KFF Policy Brief "The Role of Social Determinants in Promoting Health and Health Equity"

CVS Health "Impact of Social Support Network on Rx Adherence"

NIH: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4704953/

NIH: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2729718/

NIH: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921311/

CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/overview/

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Article By Patti Rogers

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