Leveraging existing relationships with friends and family may be a more effective way to improve patients’ health than increasing interactions with physicians or other clinicians, scientists say.
In a new study, researchers suggest a five-step ladder to effectively engineering social engagements that promote health and to test their acceptability and effectiveness.
“Spouses and friends are more likely to be around patients when they are making decisions that affect their health – like taking a walk versus watching TV, or what to order at a restaurant,” said David Asch, professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the US.
“Patients are also more likely to adopt healthy behaviours – like going to the gym – when they can go with a friend,” Asch said.
“Though people are more heavily influenced by those around them every day than they are by doctors and nurses they interact with only occasionally, these cost-free interactions remain largely untapped when engineering social incentives for health,” he said.
Due to these lost opportunities, and the high costs when doctors and nurses keep tabs on their patients, the researchers said it is important to engineer social engagements that enlist the social support patients already have and allow organisations to test their acceptability.
“Concerns about privacy are often the reason doctors and hospitals avoid organising social support,” Asch said.
“But while privacy is very important to some patients under some circumstances, more often patients would love if their friends and family helped them manage their diabetes, and those friends and family want to help people get their health under control,” he said.
“Although we don’t normally think of competition or collaboration among patients as a part of managing chronic diseases like high blood pressure, heart failure, or diabetes, research shows that behaviour is contagious, and programmes that take advantage of these naturally occurring relationships can be very effective,” said Roy Rosin, chief innovation officer at Penn Medicine.
The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.