Better Social Connections = Better Health

February 1, 2018

In the December 2016 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, David Asch and Roy Rosin make a compelling argument for the role of friends and family in healthcare and behavior change.  They discuss 5 levels of social engagement strategies.  “This model reveals opportunities to advance health by taking advantage of naturally occurring social forces.  We don’t normally think of competition or collaboration among patients as part of managing chronic diseases such as hypertension, heart failure, or diabetes, but why not?  After all, teams of physicians often compete, sometimes explicitly, to improve performance ratings.  Social interactions and competitions can also harness elements of surprise and fun.  Yet healthcare organizations rarely consider the power of social ties to help patients and hardly ever think about fun ways to engage them.”

The recent Utah Health Values Study showed that Utahns are motivated by the desire to take care of, spend time with, and strengthen bonds between children, family, and friends.  Physical activity with others is a win-win.  Not only does it improve health and well being but it gives you the opportunity to deepen these important relationships.

Public health agencies have long recognized the benefits of social support.  In 2001, The Community Preventive Services Task Force (CPSTF) recommended social support interventions in community settings to increase physical activity and improve physical fitness among adults.  Here in Utah, the Sandy City Shape Up Walking Program is an excellent example of using social support to increase physical activity (Ash/Rosin model level 4).  The walking program, which has as many as 75 participants, includes presentations on health topics, setting personal goals, and completing challenges.  Many friends and family members participate together.

Worksite wellness programs often use strategies that utilize leaderboards and incentives to encourage healthy behaviors (Ash/Rosin level 5).  At BD, which employs more than 1,000 Utahns, the worksite wellness program often uses individual and team competitions to encourage healthy behaviors, like increasing the number of step per day.

Social connections have a beneficial effect on health.  Public health efforts will continue to emphasize the importance of social support in boosting individual’s efforts to improve health.  Doctors and health systems should also recognize the role of family and friends and utilize strategies that support social support and engagement.

Engineering Social Incentives for Health – David A. Asch, M.D., M.B.A. & Roy Rosin, M.B.A.