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January 03, 2017

How your friends and family could help you get healthier

Penn study says doctors are under-utilizing potential tool

Doctors are under-utilizing a key tool in helping their patients lead healthier lives, according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.

Patients could be better incentivized to choose healthier habits and routines by more frequent interactions with friends and family instead of more doctor visits, a recent study from Penn Medicine published in The New England Journal of Medicine concludes.

"Spouses and friends are more likely to be around patients when they are making decisions that affect their health - like taking a walk versus watching TV, or what to order at a restaurant," Dr. David Asch, a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine, said in a press release.

Doctor visits are costly, but social engagements are free, and "people are more heavily influenced by those around them every day than they are by doctors and nurses they interact with only occasionally," Asch said.

The reason health professionals are sometimes hesitant to promote these cost-free interactions is privacy, the researchers said. Privacy is important to some patients, but the researchers claim more often patients would love for their family or friends to help them manage a chronic health issue, like diabetes.

The study points to previous research in which one group of diabetes patients was asked to talk on the phone weekly with peers, while another group of patients was given more typical nurse care. Those who worked with peers saw a more significant decline in glycated hemoglobin levels.

The researchers conclude that health professionals and organizations should do more to test and utilize these patient interactions with friends and families.

"Sure, health care is serious business,” Asch said. “But who says it can’t be social?”