In order to offer patients greater access to healthcare, many practices are looking beyond their physicians’ capabilities and tapping into other resources. With the recent focus on a team-based approach, non-physician practitioners, such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants, are helping round out the staff. But when even those healthcare professionals aren’t available to a patient, another option is gaining traction — the peer support network.
What are peer support networks?
Peer support networks are made up of people who are trained to communicate with patients through phone conversations or text messages, group meetings, home visits, and shared activities such as walks or grocery shopping. Instead of treatment or diagnosis, which they aren’t qualified to do anyway, members of a peer support network focus on detection, prevention, and counseling patients on maintaining healthy lifestyle behaviors to help them manage their chronic disease.
Individuals in the peer support network could be volunteers, community health workers, or coaches — many of whom have the same health issues they’re helping others manage. And this connection over a shared health problem has been found to yield beneficial results. Research indicates that people are more likely to respond positively to healthcare recommendations received from peers or coaches who have the same affliction.
The four core functions of peer support include:
- Offering assistance in daily management (e.g., making suggestions about key resources such as where to buy healthy foods or convenient exercise locations)
- Providing social and emotional support (i.e., empathetically listening to and encouraging patients to help them cope with and overcome the various social or emotional barriers associated with their illnesses, so they’ll stay motivated to reach their goals)
- Forming connections between patients and clinical care and community resources (e.g., prompting a patient to make a doctor’s appointment or take advantage of a program that’s offered in the community, when necessary)
- Providing ongoing support (i.e., keeping patients engaged via proactive, flexible, and continual follow-up measures)
According to Peers for Progress, a program of the American Academy of Family Physicians Foundation (AAFPF), peer support “complements and enhances other health care services by creating the emotional, social and practical assistance necessary for managing the disease and staying healthy.”
What are the benefits?
Though peer support networks have sometimes been regarded skeptically as a type of “public relations strategy,” the medical industry has more recently recognized their effectiveness. Studies have found that social support has wide-reaching benefits, including decreasing morbidity and mortality rates, increasing life expectancy and knowledge of one’s disease, improving self-efficacy and self-care skills, and reducing use of emergency services. Peer support can also prevent hospital readmissions, cut down on multiple doctor visits, and help improve public health.
The benefits are especially clear in communities of underserved individuals, including those who live in rural areas or don’t have health insurance. And there’s also the potential to use peer support for patients during rehabilitation and recovery. In these situations, home visits from peers could reduce hospital readmissions and ensure that patients are following their treatment plans, taking medications, and getting their questions answered.
You may have some concerns about pointing your patients in the direction of a peer support network. It can be tough to open up the physician-patient relationship and not feel like you’re diluting your practice’s patient care. But when faced with access issues and a lack of time to do extensive patient follow-up and outreach, employing a peer support network can actually improve overall quality of care.
What are the best practices for starting a network?
If you’re interested in integrating a peer support network with your practice, it’s a good idea to keep a few best practices in mind. Peers for Progress says this, “Starting a peer support program involves thinking about the kinds of support that people need and how you can address them. Doing so requires attention to the needs and strengths of your organization, the target population you aim to serve, the peer supporters and what they need to provide support, and ideas about what peer support would look like in your setting.”
Second, you’ll want to put a dedicated staff member in place to provide consistent peer support. The commitment level of a devoted team will allow your patients and their peer supporters to build relationships over an extended period of time. This isn’t a “set it and forget it” task — you’ll want to set up the team for success by providing ongoing training, management, and evaluation.
And third, in order to develop and improve your peer support network, you’ll need to allocate funding for it, either from your own financial resources or through grants. And to monitor the effectiveness of the initiative, keep records on the peer visits and interactions within patients’ medical records.
By establishing a dedicated team and integrating their work with your own, your patients will see the peer support network as an additional resource for improving their health.