Support Network: Why Everyone Needs One

Paras Goel

The demands of managing chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and asthma can be overwhelming for seniors. They must juggle complex medication regimens, special diets, maintenance of physical activity, self-monitoring of vitals and more - all while responding to changes in their symptoms and test results. The myriad of daily demands creates the potential for gaps in care – missed medications, carelessness with diet, paucity of time or resources for adequate physical activity. Even in situations where nursing staff make periodic home visits, the frequency and duration of such visits may not be commensurate with patients’ needs.

Close family members - such as a spouse or an adult child - can step in to fill this gap in various ways. Lynn Martire, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, and co-author of a paper titled “Close Relationships and the Management of Chronic Illness: Associations and Interventions” has found that a family approach can produce more effective, long-term benefits for those suffering from chronic conditions. According to the paper, patients and family members can work together to:

  • monitor patients' symptoms

  • respond to specific alerts when needed

  • keep medical appointments

  • help the patient stick to medication schedule

  • make dietary changes

  • set goals together for making lifestyle changes such as healthier eating habits and regular exercise

  • keep the patient motivated

Dr. Martire sees technology to be an important enabler for such assistance. Ubiquitous Internet access and rapidly increasing Internet/smartphone use by seniors, together with the proliferation of health-oriented apps, has opened the door for many types of micro-social networks. These programs communication and coordination between the care network – starting with patients and family members, and extending from there to nurses, healthcare providers, employers and health plans.

Milliman HealthIO is a powerful example of this evolution. The founders and product developers of HealthIO understand the link between health management and a patient’s “health advocates”. HealthIO’s easy-to-use app for the patient/member has several features which enable and promote coordination between a patient and their support network of family and close friends. These include:

  • The most important feature is the ability to share health information digitally. Easy access to the patient’s health information greatly aids in helpful actions by the advocate – everything from a simple reminder to take medication on time, to facilitating intervention by a health professional in potentially serious situations that the patient themselves may not recognize.

  • Another critical feature is the ability for family member to receive an alert when a scheduled vital measurement is missed, or when a vital exceeds (or falls below) a certain threshold (specific to the patient).

  • Built-in messaging features allow for immediate communication between patient, family member and/or health worker.

Through it all – the privacy and security of the patient/member’s health data is paramount. HealthIO is of course keenly aware of this, and has built it in. It all starts with a permission-based process wherein the patient/member invites their advocates they wish to see their data. This allows them to control specifically which information is shared and with whom. Finally, data is encrypted on secure servers and protected at all times.

Family members and friends make a big difference to anyone who cares about their health. When people manage their health - as aided by those who care, and enabled by technology - the benefits are far-reaching and can play a role in actually bending the cost curve for the entire health care ecosystem. HealthIO and its partners are using technology to lead the charge to a better tomorrow for healthcare in the US.


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