Social Determinants of Health

Confronting the Loneliness Epidemic

May 21, 2018 1:59 pm

The development of social networks has made it easier to connect with each other. Still, a substantial number of Americans feel detached from society. From successful CEOs to retired older adults, social isolation and feelings of loneliness do not discriminate, affecting all ages and backgrounds. In my 28 years as a social worker, I’ve seen the effects of this epidemic firsthand—and new studies are emerging that reveal the impact it has on a person’s health.

Many of us have heard about study findings that loneliness can be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is a risk factor for serious medical conditions. Individuals 60 years and older who struggle with loneliness face a 45 percent increased risk of mortality. The implications of the loneliness epidemic also affect healthcare costs, with those who are socially isolated accounting for $130 more per month in Medicare spending.

Although loneliness and isolation are known as drivers of severe health consequences and higher healthcare spending, until recently they’ve received very little attention in the healthcare industry. But the feeling of separation and disconnection with society impacts emotional and physical health so much that we believe it should be addressed in the healthcare setting. In 2017, CareMore Health created the Togetherness Program, a first-of-its-kind clinical program that is designed to address loneliness and isolation.

About the Togetherness Program

CareMore Health, a subsidiary of Anthem, is an innovative clinical delivery system that provides care to more than 150,000 Medicare, Medicaid, and dual-eligible patients across eight states. We launched the Togetherness Program last year because we believe that loneliness is a treatable condition. Primary efforts of the program focus on building personal connections with patients who are identified as at-risk.

The initial outreach involved consistent phone calls and engagement facilitated by dedicated “Togetherness Connectors,” who are social-work interns and volunteer CareMore associate “phone pals.” Through consistent phone outreach, we can identify social barriers that contribute to isolation and loneliness. This assessment allows us to tailor our support based on what patients say they need most—community-based resources, programs at CareMore Care Centers, exercise at Nifty after Fifty fitness gyms, and more.

More than 700 patients are actively enrolled in the program, and the team has collectively made more than 8,000 phone calls. The program’s success will be measured by key performance indicators that assess improvements in quality-of-life measures such as socialization, depression rates, and hospital admissions and overall healthcare costs.         

Community Awareness and Engagement

As a clinical delivery organization dedicated to addressing whole-life needs, including medical care and social barriers that affect health, we understand that partnerships with community-based organizations are key.

Part of our public-awareness campaign to address loneliness and isolation involves events called Togetherness Forums, in partnership with community leaders and organizations, where we seek to foster dialogue and develop collaborative solutions to address loneliness and isolation.

May marks the one-year anniversary of the CareMore Togetherness Program. This year we’ll focus on improving early detection of patients who experience loneliness and coordinating with our primary care partners to assess for loneliness in the primary care setting. We have also started working with newly bereaved patients and those who act as the primary caregiver for a loved one and feel overwhelmed. 

Our goals are to work toward better ways to identify and appropriately treat patients who suffer from loneliness and to work with other organizations to implement programs and resources that address loneliness and isolation. When healthcare and community organizations work together, we can provide people with the whole-life care needed to improve their overall quality of life.

Robin Caruso is Chief Togetherness Officer, CareMore Health, Cerritos, Calif. 

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