by Andrea Baer, MS, Director of Patient Advocacy and Program Management at Mended Hearts
“I have been where you are, I know how you feel” – That’s a powerful statement. The sense of connectiveness and bonding that can happen is soothing, and often a key to 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, I was scared, alone and feared our future. I was given lots of medical information from healthcare professionals, but what I lacked was the everyday “how am I going to get through this” answer. Questions from formula, or sleep, or what to pack for surgery. My questions were never-ending. The first person who reached out to me and said those words: “I know how you feel, I’ve been there,” changed my entire thought process and set us up for success. Nine years later, I still benefit from this community. I give advice sometimes, and sometimes I need advice.
According to 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 own care, and 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, as 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 produce the social networks that can encourage an individual to adhere to treatment and make positive lifestyle changes, and provide additional resources for services 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 provide encouragement for lifestyle changes that will impact their healthcare outcomes. It is easy to tell someone what they should do, but providing real-life answers to the question “How?” is where the social support especially comes into play.
Treatment plans, medication adherence, and general lifestyle changes can all see benefit in the connection of peer support. Peers who have experienced the same types of situations can be very important because they not only sympathize with the struggle, they can give powerful advice — advice on how they navigate lifestyle changes and how they stick to their treatment regimen. People who involve themselves within a peer support community can also see benefits of lower depression rates and a happier outlook on life. Peers can also be valuable in connecting you with resources in your local community. Building those positive social structures within communities is vital to empowering patients—an empowered patient is more engaged in their health care and more likely to make the right healthcare decisions.
Mended Hearts, the largest peer-to-peer cardiovascular support network in the world, has learned 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 re-admission rates and improve outcomes. But, to the regular patient, the proof is much larger than that. The connection and encouragement that comes from a circle of friends is invaluable.
Mended Hearts is a national and community-based 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that has been offering the gift of hope to heart disease patients, their families and caregivers. To offer this hope Mended Hearts provides a variety of programs. Mended Hearts is presenting a webinar with us at NeedyMeds tomorrow (February 28) at 1:30pm Eastern Time. Register here: http://bit.ly/2EZK4au