Loneliness: An increasingly recognized health problem
September 10, 2019

“If there's so many people here then why am I so lonely?,” sings pop rock band OneRepublic in the song Connection, released last year.

Loneliness is a recurring theme in art and pop culture now, and there’s good reason for that, says Michael Stallard, president of Connection Culture Group. “Artists have their finger on the pulse of the culture,” and they recognize loneliness as a significant problem of modern times.

Vivek Murphy, who served as the 19th Surgeon General, agrees the US is in an “emotional crisis.” Speaking at the AHIP Institute & Expo in June, he noted at least 20% of US adults are struggling with loneliness, with the actual numbers likely higher.

This is not just an emotional problem; there are a variety of health effects associated with chronic loneliness. “People who struggle with loneliness actually live shorter lives,” warned Murphy, pointing to increased risks for heart disease, dementia, anxiety and a compromised immune system.

These health issues are harming both practitioners and their patients, affecting all levels of the health care system.

How loneliness affects health care providers

Loneliness can be a particularly acute problem for health care practitioners, as they face higher-than-average stress on the job and have limited time to connect and debrief with colleagues during the workday. A recent Medscape survey found that 44% of physicians are experiencing burnout, which is up from 42% last year, and some cited deteriorating relationships as an effect.

Stallard explains that burnout can be linked to stressful schedules and happens frequently when people crowd out time for connection. “Connection is a blind spot for most people and something they often let slide during busy and stressful times in their lives.”

He recommends health care organizations make a concerted effort to encourage and facilitate connection. At the Mayo Clinic, for example, informal opportunities for connection among colleagues are encouraged by creating dedicated lounges and areas for clinicians to gather.

The organization also offers lunch get-togethers for physicians every two weeks as part of its COMPASS (Colleagues Meeting to Promote and Sustain Satisfaction) program, and it has seen an increase in satisfaction as a result.

For practices and other health care organizations, it’s important to “give your institutional blessing for time for people in your organization to connect and to take care of their health,” Stallard says. He recommends organizations take three steps to begin creating a culture of connection:

  • Keep people focused on their mission, such as by sharing patient success stories.
  • Show people within the organization that they are valued by taking time to interact with colleagues.
  • Give other employees a voice and make sure to seek and consider their opinions and ideas.

In addition to supporting clinicians, efforts to address loneliness among health care professionals also stand to benefit patients, as burnout and stress may contribute to medical errors, higher costs and worse patient outcomes and experience.

How to help patients with loneliness

In addition to addressing their own loneliness, experts say it’s important for providers on the front lines to find out if their patients are experiencing loneliness, as this could be contributing to health conditions and complicating efforts to treat them.

Murphy shared several recommendations for payers and providers on addressing loneliness:

  • Payers should encourage health care providers to prioritize attention to their patients’ social support systems.
  • Providers should employ tools like loneliness scales and incorporate the results into their medical notes.
  • Payers should engage with community resources and organizations, and they should try other models, including group health care interventions like diabetes prevention programs, which Murphy notes “have a powerful effect on patients.”

The CMS and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are in agreement that loneliness is a key social determinant of health that patients should be screened for. Some health systems and payers are already doing so, along with referring patients who meet the criteria to relevant services if needed.

Meanwhile, health insurance providers are developing and implementing additional interventions, like BCBS of Michigan’s workplace social support interventions and CareMore Health’s Togetherness program. They are also studying the issue, with Cigna releasing research last year showing that chronic loneliness has hit epidemic levels in the US.

Shining light on stigma

Despite these trends and growing awareness, loneliness has long carried a stigma that may be difficult to overcome. But talking openly about the issue is seen as a key step toward both addressing the stigma and the issue of loneliness itself, and it is clear that the health care industry is advancing that conversation.

April Hollis is custom content editor for health care. She has been with SmartBrief since 2013 and has covered health care and life sciences topics since 2006.

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