The advent of social distancing has gravely impacted people with behavioral health needs—individuals who are already prone to feeling isolated.
A double-edged sword, those at increased risk of COVID-19, such as older adults and people with chronic conditions, are also more likely to experience a greater burden of mental health and psychosocial issues compared to the general population. And, people who are lonely or isolated are at increased risk of heart disease, mental health disorders like depression and dementia, greater rates of hospitalization, and death.
Before the pandemic, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 22% of adults in the US “often or always feel lonely, feel that they lack companionship, feel left out, or feel isolated from others.” A recent analysis by AARP found that Medicare spends an additional $6.7 billion annually on enrollees who are socially isolated.
Pre-COVID-19, there was a need to address behavioral health as part of integrated care delivery models. Today, that need is dire, as the demand for behavioral health support has skyrocketed.
The need for swift action to address the effects of social isolation on the population’s well-being is recognized by a variety of authorities.
In June 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services announced an initiative that incentivizes organizations and community partners to develop “a software platform to increase awareness of, access to, and use of social engagement technologies and programming that helps curtail the impact of loneliness and social isolation.”
As such, state and community-based organizations have a responsibility to collaborate with healthcare providers across the continuum to proactively combat social isolation. This is a tremendous opportunity to prevent the detrimental long-term effects of inadequate behavioral health treatment.
Healthcare providers’ proximity to and personal knowledge of patients position them to help mitigate the effects of behavioral health issues, such as social isolation.
There are several ways that healthcare providers, states, and community organizations can work together to implement tools and integrated delivery models to best serve their workforce and patient populations. Using technologies aimed at increasing patients’ upstream connection to their healthcare team, autonomy, and overall wellness, healthcare entities can screen for and integrate behavioral health support into overall care to better address patient needs.
Three Ways to Combat Social Isolation with Technology
1. Deliver real-time data and information on patients’ feelings of loneliness with mood-tracking apps
Improving the ways patients recognize and communicate information about their mental health is key. Apps such as Daylio allow patients to record and track their emotions over time. While these apps are widely available, there has been limited adoption and awareness among patients and healthcare providers alike.
For providers, these apps can deliver real-time and historical data. In the current environment, this would give healthcare providers insight into the levels of isolation a patient is experiencing, enabling them to monitor changes, initiate a regular dialogue, and tailor appropriate behavioral health interventions. Integrating these tools into patient portals and electronic health records (EHRs) could also improve access and data analysis.
At the same time, these tools can help to reduce stigma and normalize conversations around the topic of mental health as it relates to a patient’s healthcare experience. Mood-tracking apps have shown promise to improve outcomes and the patient experience. They also help guide the process of self-reflection to improve coping with negative emotions.
2. Personalize digital healthcare experiences to engage patients in their care through more interactive platforms
In a saturated, competitive, and virtual market, healthcare companies must create an emotional connection. The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at the University of Texas concluded that relationships have a significant impact on ensuring patients receive the care they need, especially when multiple conditions are present.
Online patient portals are commonly used in conjunction with a hospital’s EHR to provide patients a convenient way to access their health records, request appointments, and securely message their providers. Enhancing some of the features provided through this channel by integrating photos, video, or Bitmoji use can build stronger bonds between patients and providers.
Personalized features such as profile pictures or emojis can give providers and patients alike a sense of identity and a means of self-expression to connect at a distance. Providers could use digital avatars or video to enhance communication on the patient portal to build trust and rapport with patients and deliver timelier care. This can be extremely beneficial, especially for patients who struggle with health literacy. Take for example teachers who use Bitmojis to create a digital persona and an online classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic; they connect and build a relationship with students of all levels in an interactive way.
Using these tools for communication can establish a stronger bond between patients and providers, and allow clinicians to recall important elements of an appointment, improve clinical documentation, and minimize medical errors.
3. Create alternative ways to enhance patient-provider communication with simple and innovative high-tech solutions
Although technology has changed the delivery of care, not everyone has been able to keep up with the pace of change. This is particularly true for older adults or people with physical and cognitive impairment. It is important to consider ways in which devices can be adapted for patients at risk for social isolation.
Countries in Europe are successfully using simplified, high-tech digital approaches to cater to people without smartphone or computer experience. No Isolation, a Norwegian-based company, developed KOMP – a one-button computer that resembles a tablet with an “on-and-off” switch that doubles as a volume dial. In the US, the Department of Veterans Affairs has reconfigured and distributed tablets for easy use (i.e. to only contain simple apps and health information) to veterans who might otherwise not have access to technology. These solutions ensure patients receive the same quality of care and feel connected without the added stress of navigating modern technology.
A computer or tablet with a simplified user interface can help providers reach isolated patients who may otherwise fall through the cracks. It can provide oversight and peace of mind on patients’ conditions by allowing a simple means for providers to communicate about treatments, test results, or appointment reminders. In turn, patients with limited technology skills or vision/hearing/dexterity impairments can access a high-tech device that is intuitive and easy to use—both improving the patient experience and overall health outcomes.
Additionally, solutions like KOMP can improve efficiency and reduce costs associated with administrative overhead, as all communication is quickly and securely stored within a user-friendly platform—much like the portals that providers are already using.
Decisions around which solutions to adopt must be carefully considered to ensure maximum impact and minimal cost.
Equipping providers with the right tools to connect with patients and identify early signs of social isolation can mitigate long-term effects and help improve patient outcomes, enhance the patient-provider relationship, and reduce overall healthcare spending. However, these solutions must be strategically adopted by healthcare organizations with community buy-in, and carefully tailored to meet the needs of the patients they serve.
Bridging the gap between providers and patients is more critical than ever and can pave the course for the future of our nation’s mental health.
Ruxandra Andriescu, Chase Hiller, and Cate Cullen contributed to the contents of this blog.