“I have been where you are; I know how you feel.” That’s a powerful statement. The sense of connection and bonding that can happen is soothing and often one of the keys to a successful recovery. Individuals who are going through a medical crisis or learning to change their lifestyle can find success in these connections.
When my son was born in 2009 with a congenital heart defect (CHD), I felt scared, alone and fearful for our future. I received a lot of medical information from health care professionals, but what I didn’t get was the answer to the question I asked myself every day: “How am I going to get through this?”
I had questions about formula, sleep and what to pack for surgery. My questions were never-ending. Then someone reached out to me and said those words: “I know how you feel, I’ve been there.” Those words changed my entire thought process and set my family up for success. Nine years later, I still benefit from this community. I give advice sometimes, and sometimes I need advice.
According to the author Charles Duhigg, a movement starts because of the social habits of friendships and strong ties to close acquaintances. It grows through the habits of the community, and it endures because individuals give each other new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership over their well-being.
In personal health, individuals must be educated, empowered and supported to make changes in their care. They should also feel they have some semblance of control. These habits are difficult for the healthcare industry to ingrain in such a fast-paced, impersonal world. Clinicians are often overwhelmed with caring for the complex medical needs of patients, which leaves them little time to provide personal support.
Social support systems are more likely to encourage an individual to adhere to treatment, make positive lifestyle changes and provide additional resources for patients. This is where peer-to-peer support enters into the healthcare equation. Peer supporters can be the social system that patients need to become educated on the importance of medication adherence and to encourage lifestyle changes that will impact their healthcare outcomes. It’s easy to tell someone what they should do, but providing real-life answers to the question “How?” is where social support comes into play.
Treatment plans, medication adherence and general lifestyle changes can all benefit from peer support. Peers who have experienced the same types of situations are important because they not only sympathize with the struggle, they can give powerful advice. Advice on how they navigate lifestyle changes and how to stick to a treatment regimen. People who involve themselves within a peer support community can also benefit from lower depression rates and a happier outlook on life.
Peers are also valuable in connecting you with resources in your local community. Building positive social structures within communities is vital to empowering patients. An empowered patient is more engaged in their healthcare and more likely to make the right healthcare decisions.
Mended Hearts, the largest peer-to-peer cardiovascular support network in the world, understands that connecting with others helps both the supporter and the one they are supporting. Case studies have shown us that peer-to-peer support can reduce readmission rates and improve treatment outcomes.
However, to the regular patient, the proof is much larger than that. The connection and encouragement that come from a circle of friends are invaluable.
To find out more information about how peer support can improve your health, look for the upcoming webinar in collaboration with NeedyMeds on their YouTube channel.
NeedyMeds is a national non-profit organization that offers free information on programs that help people who can’t afford medications and healthcare costs. Their mission is to educate and empower those seeking affordable healthcare. Find out more at www.needymeds.org.
By Andrea Baer, MS, Director of Patient Advocacy and Program Management at Mended Hearts and Mended Little Hearts.
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