A nationwide study by Cigna earlier this year found that loneliness was at epidemic levels in our country with half of Americans reporting that they feel lonely.
It is no secret to those of us in the medical community that there is a strong link between physical and mental health. Social isolation can negatively impact health in a number of ways from increased stress and inflammation to disrupted sleep to a weakened immune system.
These findings speak to the need and opportunity to make stronger human connections as we build relationships with our patients. Of course no individual physician or practice can solve this problem alone. However, I believe we can each play a role, especially those in primary medicine or providers who care for patients with chronic health conditions. What are some of the simple steps you can take?
- Ask questions. Really get to know patients and what is important to them beyond their health condition or diagnosis.
- Document what you learn in their health record and then “remember” these things at the next visit. Bring these topics up and ask additional questions to continue to strengthen the bond.
- Recognize milestones that are important to patients — these can be health milestones, but they can also include birthdays, a graduation, an anniversary, a wedding, a family reunion, a new job, an award or personal accomplishment, a race or sports event, or any other significant event that is important to the patient.
- Send an unexpected handwritten note. It only needs to be a few sentences and can be a great way to maintain contact in-between visits. Let the patient know it was great to see them, thank them for trusting your practice to care for them, follow up on something they mentioned that was important (see bullet above) and let them know you look forward to seeing them soon.
- Make a personal follow-up call after an unexpected illness or procedure to see if the patient is feeling better or has any questions.
None of this is truly expected, but all of it can make a difference. No one wants to feel invisible, and sometimes just knowing one person took the time to reach out and care, can have a huge impact, resulting not only in a happier and perhaps healthier patient, but also in a stronger, healthier and sustainable medical practice.