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Health Care Providers Explore Ways to Tackle Loneliness

Outside-the-box solutions for the health hazard impacting older Americans

Doctor talking to patient in office

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Given that loneliness is being acknowledged as a public health hazard in the same way that smoking and obesity are, a number of health care providers are instituting procedures to diagnose and treat the condition.

A recent study by CareMore, a health care plan based in Cerritos, Calif., revealed that 27 percent of the respondents wanted their plan to connect them with activities or other people in their communities. In response, the company last year launched the Togetherness Program to assess and treat patients upon their first entry into the plan. The entire clinical team has been trained to screen older patients by using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a series of 20 questions designed to assess loneliness, Robin Caruso, chief togetherness officer with CareMore, wrote in an email. CareMore has remodeled some of its clinics so patients can socialize and take care of their health care needs at the same time.  

Loneliness impacts a person’s health much like a chronic disease, so we treat it as such using a holistic care approach,” Caruso continues. This includes telephone outreach, home visits and programs to increase physical and social activity. Early feedback indicates that the Togetherness Program is working. “Patients are more engaged socially and physically at our Nifty after Fifty gym,” Caruso writes. “In addition, we are seeing reduced emergency room visits and lower hospital admissions.”

In 2014, health care provider Humana launched Bold Goal to make the communities they serve 20 percent healthier by 2020. Included in that initiative is an awareness that loneliness is a social determinant of health in much the same way as lack of transportation or food insecurity or poverty, says Roy Beveridge, chief medical officer of Louisville, Ky.–based Humana. The question becomes, How do you fix the underlying problem? To that end Humana has introduced several of what Beveridge calls “shots on goal,” including four pilot programs to determine what type of interaction works best. For example, because correlation between social isolation and food insecurity is high, Humana is working with Meals on Wheels to assess whether interacting with the member while dropping off the food is successful. “We have to look at this from a multitude of directions,” says Beveridge, “to determine which approach will contribute positively to the solution.”

In May, Bloomfield, Conn.–based Cigna released the results of its survey of 20,000 Americans ages 18 and older. “We found that almost half the respondents reported feeling alone or left out,” says Douglas Nemecek, chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna. Not surprisingly, these feelings correlated with poor health, he says. Interventions include designing centers like Cigna Healthspring in Miami, which serves as a gathering place where patients can get their health care needs met and socialize at the same time. Cigna is not trying to do this on its own. “We are reaching out to like-minded organizations to identify opportunities to best move forward outside the clinical setting,” says Nemecek.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to note Cigna is located in Bloomfield, Conn.

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