I don’t know if I’ve ever met a patient who’s told me their goal is to be as unhealthy as possible. Rather, almost every patient I’ve ever taken care of says they want to be “healthy, remain healthy, and live a long time.” They make a plan—usually involving diet and exercise—and know it will take commitment and discipline to break old habits, avoid the late night ice cream, and wake up at the early morning alarm to exercise before work. However, most folks leave out one thing when setting their plan: Community.  

40-80% of our health is impacted by factors outside of clinical care, and among these are social needs. Yet in 2020, a comprehensive, integrated, or whole person care model still seems to be the exception rather than the norm. So how do we get there?

Like everything else in healthcare, it starts with trusting relationships. Trust is the key ingredient in finding your community. Google talks about having a psychological safety net in the workplace as the key success factor of great teams. This concept not only applies to the workplace, but also to your health. Trust is the underpinning of creating the psychological safety net. Keep reading for some ideas for picking a social support regimen that’s sustainable for you and your health goals: 

  1. Go see your medical team.
    As Covid-19 has dragged on, many of us have pressed pause on our regular preventive care appointments—and this is already starting to lead to an uptick in other health problems. Fortunately, virtual care has greatly expanded our options for keeping in touch with our caregivers. Further, if you choose to go in-person, most medical practices have rigorous safety protocols in place (from a Covid-safety perspective, going to the doctor is likely as safe or safer than going to the grocery store). Importantly, the benefits of seeing your caregivers (virtually or in-person) extend beyond just a checkup. Having contact with a team that’s invested in your health can be incredibly motivating, and their support and ideas can set you up for success. 
  1. Look into shared medical appointments.
    Many healthcare organizations have launched shared medical appointments where patients with the same condition or health goals come together for a longer clinic visit. In addition to meeting with their physician in this setting, patients can engage as a group to learn from each other about how they’re coping and managing their goals. Data is showing better outcomes for many of those enrolled in these clinic models than for those who have one-on-one appointments. 
  1. Join an online peer support group.
    Online groups mean that no matter where you are, you can find community around your experience. Many people prefer online groups to in-person because they cut down on travel time and because interacting through a screen can feel a little less intimidating at first. 

Once you’ve identified a strategy and plan, linking up more informally with others on a similar path may improve your adherence and eventual outcomes even more. This doesn’t have to mean people you already know or live near (though that’s great, too). The digital world can be an excellent starting point for making these kinds of connections—be it an old friend of Facebook or someone you choose to follow on Instagram. 

The bottom line is that changing behaviors and breaking old habits is hard work. Your medical team and a trusted community of people looking to accomplish similar goals can help you create a sustainable plan and stick to it. As with any endeavors, sometimes it takes a village to be successful. 

Dr. Harry Saag is an internal medicine physician and the CEO and co-founder of Roster Health, a tech-enabled company focused on social determinants of health. He is passionate about payment models moving away from fee-for-service and toward value-based arrangements, where both patient and financial outcomes are seamlessly aligned.

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