Chronic disease is a major problem for developed countries. Cardiovascular disease is growing at an alarming pace with over two million people diagnosed each year. In the United States alone, over 30 million people are currently living with diabetes.
More than ever patients need a framework of support to help them manage their health. While clinicians play an important role in managing chronic disease, patients need a support system that goes beyond routine medical visits.
They need supported self-management that includes education and behavior change - and they have a greater chance of success if they're not going it alone. Peer support in the form of online communities provides patients with emotional support as well as learning from others who have gone through the same thing.
Peer support - or as we call it at Melon, human connection by way of a health community - fills this void. Connecting patients with other patient experts has proved effective in curbing mental, emotional, and physical side effects associated with chronic disease.
Here’s how to do it:
1. Put the patient in the driver's seat
Patients are less likely to engage in their own health if they feel like they pay a subordinate role in their care. When this happens, patients outsource decision making to their clinicians and have increased medical costs.
They take a hands on approach to their health.
A peer community helps put the patient in the driver seat of their health. As they engage with other patients and get educated about their condition, they discover the right questions to ask and know better how to communicate to their doctor about their health.
They stay out of the hospital
Engaging in a health community helps patients decrease the number of times they visit their doctor and/or the ED. A peer group can offer “tier 1” support for patients who have a medical question or are worried about a concerning symptom. Their health community and health coach can give them better direction on which action they should take.
2. Train a community manager to facilitate peer discussions
First do no harm. Safety is an important factor to consider when you have a non-clinical 'work-force'. Ensuring content is monitored by a healthcare community manager helps mitigate the risk of un-safe advice being shared. The role of the community manager ensures that quality information is being discussed while discouraging false information so patients can then trust the information they receive from peer discussions.
Community managers can also assist patients in adapting information to their current situation, and directing them to trusted information on your platform, and if a medical query arises - they can triage the patient to their medical professional.
Community managers are effective at decreasing medical visits by encouraging self-management and healthy practices. This level of non-clinical support, navigation and lifestyle interventions can reduce unnecessary communication with clinicians.
3. Make everyone feel welcome to the group
The twenty-first century has introduced an interesting phenomenon: customer-created content. More than ever before, people want to give meaningful input. Healthcare needs to capitalize on this by welcoming each person to the community and inviting them to engage and create helpful content to their peers.
Fear is a major barrier to patient engagement. The benefits of peer support quickly break down if groups cease to support. Peer groups MUST be geared to make everyone feel welcome and wanted.
This is another area where facilitators are helpful. Among the many benefits of community managers, they play an important role in creating a positive, encouraging environment. They facilitate discussion by starting group conversations and encouraging patient feedback. They also limit negative comments and trolling - keeping the environment friendly and engaging.
4. Make it convenient for users
Today's patients gravitate towards convenience. With convenient ways to buy groceries, obtain education, and access information, patients expect convenience to be a part of their health experience as well. A sure way to alienate patients from peer support is by using inconvenient platforms.
A major barrier to peer support is physical location. Especially in rural areas patients are less likely to attend support groups. With technological advancements, however, healthcare now can offer peer support to patients anytime, anywhere.
Your tech-enabled peer support needs to be user friendly and supported across a wide variety of devices. Regardless of age, patients won’t continue using a platform that isn’t easily integrated into normal life. Even if it offers great support, convenience will always win.
5. Make community content helpful and valuable.
Peer support when used effectively is a valuable tool, creating better outcomes. Patients need to be just as convinced of its value as healthcare professionals. The best way to convince patients of the value of peer support is to provide them with helpful information.
Community managers are helpful means to this end. They can pose questions to engage patients in group conversations. They can also add a personalized element by helping patients adapt information to their current situation, and help patients navigate services to help address social determinants of health.
In the day of Amazon reviews and Google ratings, people naturally want to contribute and add value. Now technology-enabled platforms encourage this in healthcare, too. Patients help other patients by walking along side them in their journey and by becoming “experts” in changing behavior and self-care - starting with what they learn from their clinician and then growing that knowledge with the support of their health community.
Are you offering peer support? If not, here’s a road map to deliver consumer experiences in healthcare, including tech-enabled human connection.