ACP 2019: How loneliness affects patients-and their physicians

April 11, 2019
Daniel R Verdon
Volume 96, Issue 10

Loneliness is a quiet epidemic causing loud health impacts on patients and physicians. 

Loneliness: It is a growing societal challenge that can dramatically influence patient and physician health.

In a keynote presentation April 11 at the American College of Physicians (ACP) Internal Medicine Meeting 2019, former Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA, told about 4,000 attendees that the country’s state of emotional health remains an important driver of health.

“If you told me five years ago that I would be talking to physicians about the subject of loneliness, I would have been surprised,” Murthy said. As he travelled the country as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, he began to hear more patient stories related to addiction, violence, mental illness and other behavioral-based health conditions. There was an undercurrent, Murthy says, that connected many of these prevalent social issues to loneliness. “Many patients are struggling with it,” he adds.

Healthcare professionals are starting to recognize its impact on adherence to physician treatments and recommendations, lack of exercise, smoking, and other unhealthy lifestyle behaviors and other social determinants.

It is estimated that as much as 20 percent of the population struggles with loneliness, and additional research in this area is starting to offer stronger linkages to health consequences associated with loneliness including depression, dementia, cardiovascular disease, and anxiety.

“It affects physicians too. We talk about burnout in our profession,” Murthy says, but healthcare is not a profession that often promotes self-care.

Physicians work long hours, which can definitely contribute to feelings of isolation and a kind of physical and emotional barrier to making stronger connections with friends and family.

When your professional lives take over, Murtha says, you need to adopt strategies that can help you stay connected with your love of medicine and maintain a healthy balance outside of busy schedules.

During long shifts, try to add a micro-dose of self-appreciation, Murthy says. For example: Take five extra seconds when you are washing your hands to reflect on the ways you have helped patients that day. Do that three times a day.

“We are not designed to work alone,” he says. “We need each other, and we need to support each other.”

Murthy called on attendees to imagine a time in healthcare where physicians have built a culture that supports each other. “The lives of the people in this room matters.”

“Our country is in this struggle between love and fear,” he says. “People are worried about the kind of environment their children are growing up in. They see the polarization of politics. They look at the meanness on social media. People are worried. How are we going to create a better world for ourselves? Where will that leadership come from? Our profession has to lead.”

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