In the battle against chronic conditions, healthcare must introduce measures for behavior change. This is an uphill battle though. Patients struggle to stay engaged in their own health, in part because in the past they were not allowed an active role. Clinicians were the experts and patients let them make most of their health decisions.
However, with the rise of consumerism, the democratization of information, even medical information, via the internet means the patient has more access than ever to expert advice and opinions from around the globe.
They now have access to information about heart disease and diabetes and other chronic conditions that they never had before and this empowers them to be in control of their own health.
However, all of this information often leaves their heads spinning and while they know they need to make lifestyle changes based on information they receive from their doctor as well as information they receive online, they struggle to adjust their lives to help them meet their health goals.
This is where health communities come in. Peer support becomes the channel where large amounts of information are distilled into actionable changes a patient can make to improve their health.
Here’s how to use peer communities to support behavior change.
Get them in a health community
It all starts with getting patients into the health community in the first place. We know first hand how difficult this can be. Patients won’t join communities if they don’t first believe in the value. If they never join, hey won’t reap the benefits of the peer support available to them.
One way to help them see the value is for a trusted person like their clinician to communicate why social support is so important to their health and wellness.
What’s the value
Overcoming the far-reaching consequences of loneliness
What many patients don’t realize is that fighting illness in isolation introduces greater health risks. Isolation increases complications with cardiac disease and can lead to chronic stress. Lonely patients also make lifestyle choices that worsen chronic disease such as smoking and obesity.
Loneliness is defined as “the discrepancy between a person's desired and actual social relationships.” The problem is that chronic disease often leads to isolation - sometimes real, sometimes perceived.
In many cases, patients are limited in activities or behaviors that previously defined their life. They often grieve over the loss of things they loved and feel that no one among their friends and family truly understand what they are going through.
Patients can never win the battle of isolation on their own, and they need to be aware just how dangerous it can be to their health. Communicate to patients the value of community in helping them overcome feelings of isolation.
Providing emotional support they don’t know they need
Patients don’t realize the emotional struggles that often accompany chronic disease and even if they do, many think they can deal with negative emotions on their own. However, unresolved emotional struggles lead to further affective disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Depression in the medically ill is difficult to diagnose since it mimics disease symptoms. To complicate matters, patients often don’t recognize symptoms themselves.
This is why patients need a community of “peer experts.” Often their peers as well as the community’s health coach can help them deal with negative emotions and see symptoms of depression to help them seek medical help when necessary.
Make it easy for patients to join
In this new era of digital consumerism, patients are used to being in the driver’s seat and making decisions for themselves. They expect the companies they engage with to meet their needs and wants. They are surrounded by Amazon and Netflix and Instagram where they get immediate gratification and what they want when they want it.
Healthcare, however, has been slow to adjust to this market of consumers. With easy access to everything from groceries to entertainment, patients won’t cater to healthcare’s needs anymore. They expect healthcare to cater to them.
In community support, this means that joining communities needs to be simple and quick. No wait times or confusing interfaces. For patients to actually join patient communities, the process needs to be seamless and even delightful to match what they are used to outside of healthcare.
Encourage patients to engage in meaningful conversation
The education industry conducts significant study on communication. Healthcare can learn much from the models of communication that teachers and schools use to help patients learn about their own health. Increasingly, active learning is gaining a vital role.
Traditional healthcare has been based on a model of passive learning. Clinicians give information. Patients receive it. Beyond that, they rarely interact with health knowledge.
Active learning applied in healthcare means patients engage in conversation about their health. The more patients discuss, the more they learn, the more they apply. Instructive, encouraging discussions motivate patients to follow through on goals.
To help your patients engage in meaningful conversations, facilitate discussion in your online community where patients support each other, find motivation, and receive health education.
Manage disagreements in patient interactions
Where communication is present, conflict can be close behind. While some view conflict as negative, it actually can bring communities closer together. However, to ensure communitiy interactions remain positive, even with conflict, healthcare communities should have someone who plays the role of community manager.
To encourage community support, patients need a mindset shift about disagreement. Each disagreement is an opportunity for both sides to grow and develop.
Don’t let toxic communication (name calling, cheap shots, and the like) go unattended. Address the issue, but don’t jump to conclusions. Encourage individuals to listen by asking questions rather than spouting accusations.
Provide motivation for patient success
Many theories exist about motivation - why and how it works. A study conducted at Harvard revealed that few things motivate people more than progress. Patients need to believe they can accomplish their goals.
Motivation comes in many forms like positive feedback, healthy conversation, community brainstorming and shared experiences. All of this is present in community support. With the help of community, patients will have the motivation to succeed.
Allow collaborative brainstorming
Patient-generated solutions play an important role in affecting change. Clinicians offer medical expertise and guidance but can’t always contribute experiential knowledge. Those dealing with disease on a daily basis have fresh perspectives on patients’ real needs.
This is why collaborative brainstorming is so important. Patients need creative solutions for daily problems. As each member participates in brainstorming, they’re encouraged to view their own problems differently. They’re motivated to not give up. Rather, they learn to innovate new solutions to any new problem that surfaces.
While medical professionals tend to rely on tried and true methods (as they should), patients are free to think outside the box. They can innovate solutions for problems clinicians don’t interact with. As such, patient brainstorming provides an extra level of support in the medical field.
Is your health community facilitating behavior change?
Download this roadmap to discover how to engage patients in their own care to achieve behavior change.