Doctors Harness the Power of Human Connections

Last year, the V.A. started “a new social prescription program,” called Compassionate Contact Corps. Originally a home visitation program, it was restarted as a teleservice for veterans experiencing loneliness and social isolation when the pandemic hit. About 1,000 veterans are participating in the program, which involves phone or video calls with trained volunteers and requires a referral from the veteran’s medical care team.

“Veterans we weren’t able to reach with the in-home program, we are able to reach with the ‘phone buddy’ program,” said Prince Taylor, deputy director for the V.A.’s Center for Development and Civic Engagement. “Overwhelmingly, the veterans who have participated in this program tell us it is helping them.”

But how, exactly? And can the outcomes of social prescribing be accurately measured? “I would not have any hesitation saying that socialization is an important aspect of health,” said the Cleveland Clinic neurologist Marwan Sabbagh, director of translational research at the clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. “But the quantification is something that needs to be done in a way that would be universally accepted. We can measure things like memory and cognition, but I’m not familiar with ways we can clinically capture or quantify social isolation.”

He added that researchers in other disciplines — the social sciences, for example — might have tools to help with this and could play a role in the future of developing social prescription protocols in the United States.

The authors of a recent New England Journal of Medicine article on the British social prescription model agree that better assessment methods are needed. While calling the implications of social prescribing “profound,” they noted that “physicians need reliable information on what interventions work best and for whom and how social prescription can best be integrated into conventional medical practice.”

Some see this as linked to a larger shift in medicine toward a more holistic approach. “We have to remember,” said Dr. Kasaraneni, “people don’t come to us with a list of medical problems; they come with a life, and a life that may have medical issues but also social and emotional issues.”

Other doctors say that social prescribing may become the norm in the United States sooner than later. “I think the pandemic has really opened up the door for this kind of thing,” said Dr. Malissa J. Wood, co-director of the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center. Dr. Wood has used structured support groups as part of community programs she designed to improve the cardiovascular health of low-income, high-risk women.


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