Using Community to Combat Illness

Human beings are undoubtedly social creatures by nature.  Because of this, it’s no surprise that the results from a UK trial published in the Resurgence & Ecologist magazine demonstrate the importance of community support in regard to health. 


The data suggest that when community members support people with health problems who are living in isolation, the number of emergency admissions to hospitals declines sharply.   According to the lead author of the report Julian Abel, “No other interventions on record have reduced emergency admissions across a population.” 


In 2013, the Compassionate Frome project was initiated by GP Helen Kingston to expand the scope of patient care.  With the help of several agents, her practice established a directory of agencies and community groups to connect patients.   These included lunch groups, exercise groups, and various other social groups in an effort to combat loneliness.  


These efforts align with what is already known in neuroscience—that chemicals called cytokines function as messengers to the immune system and cause inflammation, changing behaviour; they encourage humans to withdraw from social contact. 


Scientists now believe that inflammation contributes to depression.  Paradoxically while inflammation separates us from society, it also causes humans to seek additional support from their close circles.  Unfortunately research suggests that an increasing number of Americans have no confidant to seek support, and this is the problem that the Compassionate Frome project seeks to remedy. 


There are many other studies that support the conclusions drawn in this report.  For instance, HIV patients with strong social networks report lower viral loads than those without.  The chances of women surviving colorectal cancer if they have strong social connections are also better.  What these examples demonstrate is that emotions and patients’ overall disposition—both good and bad—can have a very real impact on health outcomes. 


If the patient is truly at the heart of everything that we do, we need to treat them holistically—moving beyond just mediation to comprehensive care.  What this research suggests is that social contact should be a vital component of prescription and treatment as in this case study of the town of Frome.  To healthcare marketers, what are the opportunities to provide superior patient support and how can we move beyond the traditional approach to prescription?  How can we leverage and improve social connections as well as linking knowledge from neuroscience to social behaviour in order to provide optimal patient care?