Enlisting social networks for better health outcomes


As a hospitalist, you typically have little, if any, contact with patients outside the hospital and, at most, you’ll only spend a couple of hours a year in front of any particular patient. The vast majority of the determinants of your patients’ health occur when you’re not there.

In a commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled “Engineering Social Incentives for Health,” lead author David A. Asch, MD, MBA, addresses that issue.1

“The motivation for the piece is that the people who are in a position to influence a patient’s health are their friends and family, and yet so much of how we have structured health care is between a clinician and a patient,” he says. “We often fail to engage the people in patients’ everyday lives, who can be quite willing partners in improving health care. There are all sorts of things they can do to help patients with hard-to-control diabetes or ... heart failure, or anything that might have put them in the hospital in the first place.”

The column describes a ladder of social engineering strategies, from very simple to complex. One example on the simple end might be to help a patient remember a daily medication by having him place the medication bottle where his partner can see him taking – or not taking – it. (The alternative is that medications are taken in a private place, such in the bathroom, where no one might be watching over the routine to keep the patient on track.)

Moving up the ladder, a hospitalist might help set up a network of other patients with heart failure, so that they can help each other in a kind of peer mentorship.

“These peer-to-peer connections might require Web-based platforms or social support groups, so that kind of activity is a lot more complicated, but the general theme is: Can hospitalists think about ways to constructively engage the social networks that already surround patients, so they don’t need to invoke the health system to do it?”

It’s long been known that people with more social support do better: People who are married do better; people who have more friends do better. “Up until now, it’s just been an observation,” Dr. Asch says. “I think we’re at a point where we could begin to prescribe social support in the way we might prescribe a diuretic. I’d like to try it out at least. I think that’s the call to action.”


1. Asch D, Rosin R. Engineering social incentives for health. NEJM. 2016;375:2511-2513.

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