Mobilizing Social Support in Healthcare: A Guide for Providers

Caring for patients is a team effort. As a hospital executive, you oversee the quality of healthcare administered at your organization. As a physician or nurse, you prescribe and provide treatment. As a professional or family caregiver, you help patients manage their medications and day-to-day life. And as a social worker, therapist, or chaplain, you navigate the practical, emotional, or spiritual challenges that often accompany illness.

But there is another powerful way to care for patients that includes not just the healthcare system, but also the community around each patient. Quite simply, it’s to care.

The relationships your patients have with you, your team, and their loved ones can be nothing short of transformational—if you prioritize and nurture them. By making human connection the guiding light along the patient journey, you can better fulfill your objectives as a provider, help ensure that patients have the best possible experience and outcomes, and overall amplify your impact.

The Research on Social Support in Healthcare

Researchers have been studying how human connection influences health over the last century, and by now the evidence is definitive. As one study summarized, “having strong and supportive social relationships causes better health and longer life.” From enhancing immune systems to preventing heart disease and extending lifespans, human connection can protect and improve people’s physical, mental, and social well-being.

While this is true for all of us, it takes on a special importance in the context of the patient journey. From dealing with the shock and grief of a diagnosis, through undergoing treatment, to recovering or managing a condition on an ongoing basis, patients can benefit tremendously from the love and support of the people around them. In fact, that love and support helps determine their outcomes, which is why CaringBridge empowers patients and their communities to stay connected.

Here are four key ways in which meaningful human connection helps patients heal and thrive—and therefore helps you as a provider achieve your mission.

Supported Patients Are More Resilient

One of the most influential relationships a patient has over the course of their condition is with their doctor. When physicians take the time to build a trusting, caring rapport, patients fare better psychologically. For instance, a systematic review of the literature confirmed that greater physician empathy is associated with lower anxiety, less distress, and higher satisfaction among patients.

Human connection contributes to well-being outside the doctor’s office, too. For instance, people who feel supported by others are more likely to experience what researchers call “post-traumatic growth,” or positive change following a significant challenge such as a cancer diagnosis or an incident resulting in disability.

Similarly, palliative care patients were better able to make meaning out of their situation through their relationships with loved ones, leading researchers to conclude that the “presence of a caregiver, family, and friends seem to allow patients to maintain purpose and have meaning, supporting the ability to cope with the life altering situation.” 

Supported Patients Experience Better Outcomes

Beyond strengthening emotional well-being, human connection can improve patients’ physical health. For instance, symptoms, general functioning, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and pain levels were all better in patients whose physicians were emotionally supportive, encouraged them to ask questions, and overall communicated in a caring way.

Similarly, individuals with psychotic disorders were less likely to struggle with symptoms and were admitted to the hospital fewer times over a three-year period if they had high levels of social support.

This may be because social ties protect people from harmful biological processes that isolation and loneliness can trigger. Following surgery for breast cancer, women who had higher levels of social well-being—defined as feeling close to, supported by, and satisfied with communication with family and friends—also showed less leukocyte expression of pro-inflammatory and pro-metastatic genes, which can cause tumor growth.

Similarly, a meta-analysis of over 40 studies with more than 73,000 participants revealed that social connection buffered against inflammation, which could otherwise worsen symptoms and disease progression.

Supported Patients Follow Treatment Better

Another way in which human connection helps improve patient outcomes is through treatment adherence. The regimen you prescribe will only be effective if patients actually follow it, whether that entails undergoing treatment, taking medications, making lifestyle changes, or attending regular check-ins.

As one example, researchers have estimated that up to 50 percent of patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes do not take their pills as prescribed. In turn, healthcare providers face more than 100,000 preventable deaths and $100 billion in preventable medical costs each year. Some of the barriers to medication adherence include inconvenience, a lack of motivation, and a poor provider-patient relationship—all of which can be addressed through greater social support. 

Indeed, a review of more than 120 studies showed that patients are more likely to do what their doctor recommends if they have support. This support could come from healthcare providers, but also loved ones; for instance, adherence was almost two times higher if patients had cohesive families and more than one and a half times lower if patients experienced conflict at home. 

Another review of research, this time on patients with hypertension, found that social support was most effective at improving adherence if it was emotional (e.g., encouraging the patient to take their medications), instrumental (e.g., picking up the patient’s medications at the pharmacy), or informative (e.g., explaining why the medication is important). Understanding and staying on top of one’s treatment can be overwhelming and stressful—but much less so with a little help. 

Supported Patients Live Longer

A recent study examined the results of more than 100 randomized controlled trials of psychosocial support interventions in both in-patient and out-patient medical settings. Led by nurses, medical staff, social workers, mental health professionals, or peers with the same condition, the interventions built relationships with and provided support to patients through group gatherings, online or telephone conversations, and home visits.

Among more than 40,000 patients, most of whom had either heart disease or cancer, those who received support in addition to standard care were 20 percent more likely to be alive at the end of the study and had a nearly 30 percent higher chance of survival over time, compared to those who received only standard care. In other words, there is a clear link between social support in healthcare and patient longevity.

This finding is backed up by other research, too. When researchers analyzed the results of nearly 150 studies with more than 300,000 participants, they found that people with stronger social relationships had a 50 percent higher likelihood of survival than people with weaker social relationships.

This finding led them to conclude that the risk of dying if you lack social support is similar to the risk of dying if you smoke or drink excessively—and higher than the risk of dying if you are obese or physically inactive. Similarly, another study reported that social isolation and loneliness lead to a 29 and 26 percent increased likelihood of mortality, respectively. Quite literally, human connection is a matter of life or death.

How to Integrate These Insights into Your Work

Taken together, the research indicates that caring relationships should be seen not as supplemental, but rather as essential to the patient journey. This also means that, as a healthcare provider, you can unlock better health outcomes and improve the effectiveness of your services by incorporating social support into your care plans. But how?

One way is to make human connection a priority in your work. As a healthcare executive, this might mean investing in training and programs so that social support becomes a core competency at your organization. As a healthcare practitioner, this might mean practicing empathy and compassion in your interactions with patients—or preventing burnout through self-care, work-life balance, and support from coworkers and loved ones. After all, caring for others requires caring for yourself first.

You can also mobilize social support by ensuring that patients feel connected to their broader communities, especially their friends and families. CaringBridge makes this easy with their free platform for patients to keep in touch with loved ones over the course of their condition, enabling everyone in their community to share updates and encouragement.

For this reason, healthcare organizations like the Mayo Clinic Health System have been recommending CaringBridge to their patients since it launched in 1997. And in 2020, Johns Hopkins Medicine used CaringBridge during the COVID-19 pandemic as a core component of its strategy to help patients feel connected and reduce the time clinical staff spent liaising with concerned family members.

With tools like CaringBridge, it is easier than ever to prioritize human connection along the patient journey—and doing so is a win-win-win for providers, for patients, and for their loved ones. Together, let’s ensure that no patient feels alone.