What medications do you currently take? Do you have any allergies? What medical conditions did your parents live with, or die from?
As physicians, we are conditioned to drill every patient with a standard list of questions whose answers could literally save a life. We investigate for drug toxicities, medication interactions, daily exposures, and family histories that shed light onto present illness.
Within our standard interview we also check off mandatory boxes to describe a patient’s “Social History”—Do you smoke cigarettes? Drink alcohol? Use drugs? Have sex?—however we are not always trained to see our patients as social beings. We are not always prompted to ask another, crucial set of questions that could just as easily save a life as uncovering heart disease history:
Do you live alone? Who will visit you here in the hospital? With whom do you share your private worries and fears? How much of your week do you spend with other people?
In other words: Are you lonely?
These questions can feel unusual, if not uncomfortable, for practitioners who lead rich social lives and have familial support, and may never think twice about loneliness as an epidemic. And yet all of us have surely encountered patients who are not only lonely inside the hospital walls—no visitors, no collateral from next of kin—but whose isolation likely led to them being hospitalized in the first place.
What role, exactly, does loneliness play in the pathophysiology of a patient’s disease course? We’ve all learned about the anti-anxiolytic effects of our body’s innately programmed mechanisms for social affiliation: once activated, our oxytocin and medial pre-optic hypothalamic pathways can lead to stronger defenses against the damaging effects of stress. But the evidence for loneliness as a pathogen penetrates much deeper than our basic neuro-hormonal networks. This growing body of research has identified social isolation as an independent driver of maladaptive immune activity, worsening cardiovascular disease,and all-cause mortality.
Over the past decade, researchers have started to identify more precise molecular pathways by which isolation takes its toll. There is evidence that individuals who chronically experience social isolation develop impairments in the transcription of glucocorticoid response genes, and have subsequent flares in the activity of pro-inflammatory transcription control pathways, due to beta-adrenergic activation of GATA1 at the interleukin-6 locus. It has also been found that plasmacytoid dendritic cells and monocytes are the source of “loneliness-associated genes” in chronically isolated people, specifically the pro-inflammatory transcription factor, NF-κB, in monocytes.
From these results we should extend our thinking to wonder: without any interventions, might our patients who experience chronic loneliness go on to experience worsening of their medical conditions, in the same way an untreated infection will eventually lead to sepsis? And if so, what does that mean for physicians, whose responsibility it is to care for a patient’s full health? Aside from being able to “prescribe” social interaction, there is some evidence to suggest that even in our short clinic and hospital encounters we can improve a patient’s sense of isolation, and subsequently improve their health. One study in 2006 examined a group of patients with depression; all were given placebo medications, half of them by a doctor who provided no emotional support, and half of them by a physician trained to express empathy and concern for the patients’ welfare. Patients with empathetic doctors ended up experiencing fewer symptoms of depression. Powerfully, the authors suggested, “The health care community would be wise to consider the psychiatrist not only as a provider of treatment, but also as a means of treatment.”
Beyond the field of psychiatry this notion still rings true. A meta-analysis of the impact of psychotherapy on adults with irritable bowel syndrome found that patients who engaged in therapeutic conversations with their doctors, compared those who took medications only, experienced fewer symptoms (less bloating, diarrhea, constipation), not only immediately after talk therapy, but for up to a year afterward. Another study examined patients with the common cold, and found that patients whose doctors demonstrated high levels of empathy (following a standard empathy “script”) experienced significantly reduced severity and duration of their colds, with more robust immune system responses.
If therapeutic relationships between physician and patient have the power to improve a patient’s health, why are they not made mandatory, just as we keep stringent protocols for stroke alerts or sepsis? Likely because relationships are a bit easier said than done, in the same way that much else in clinical medicine is easier done than said. Explaining how the pathophysiology of intercellular calcium ion exchange can influence heart contractions is far more complicated than placing an ultrasound wand on a patient’s chest to see it pump. Conversely, it feels like common sense to acknowledge that being kind, warm, and empathetic to a patient could improve their care, but it is difficult to implement empathy and patience on a daily basis, in the midst of an endless to-do list, a bevy of patients with urgent needs, in a obstacle-ridden healthcare system not always designed for optimizing effective communication.
The challenge of building strong, therapeutic relationships with patients is one we all face everyday in our clinical environments. It’s not always an easy task—and it may not cure a patient’s loneliness—but if we’re up for making a connection, we could be making a powerful contribution to our patients’ healing processes.
**This article was published in its original form in NYU’s Clinical Correlations Journal.
Photo credit: George Buchholz.
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. For an extended discussion on this concept, and additional research about loneliness and health, please see: Hafner K. Researchers confront an epidemic of loneliness. New York Times. Sept 6, 2016:D1.
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