Why Papa, Humana think it's crucial to 'make noise' about the impacts of loneliness amid COVID-19 

The coronavirus pandemic has forced population health programs targeting loneliness to adapt to a new normal of social distancing. 

That means companies like Papa, which offers visits from college students to lonely seniors, have had to take an increasingly digital approach to help socially isolated people connect. 

Andrew Parker, CEO and founder of Papa, told FierceHealthcare that the company is now conducting more virtual companion visits per day and per month than it was doing in-person visits before the pandemic.

Papa Pals are also assisting seniors with grocery shopping by providing contact-free food deliveries, he said.

“It was a pretty fast but significant transition to move our business,” Parker said.

RELATED: How a new wave of technology startups is tackling social determinants of health challenges 

Papa’s latest initiative amid the pandemic is in partnership with Humana, Uber Health, the Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness and the Translational Research Institute for Space Health to kickstart an awareness campaign on the risks associated with loneliness.  

William Shrank, M.D., chief medical officer at Humana told FierceHealthcare it wasn’t an accident that these groups decided to launch the campaign in the middle of the pandemic.

“We’re in this very strange time where we’re purposefully socially distancing, and we know that for lots and lots and lots of people that is exacerbating underlying problems with loneliness or social isolation—or creating new problems,” Shrank said.

The mantra behind the team-up is “social distancing should not mean social isolation,” he said. Isolation, especially among seniors, is associated with worse outcomes for both behavioral and physical health. A 2010 study, for example, shows that people who are socially isolated are 50% more likely to die prematurely.

RELATED: Loneliness has become a big target for Medicare Advantage insurers. Here’s what they’re doing about it 

Isolation is linked to a bevy of other social determinants of health, Shrank said, especially as social distancing guidelines shutter common services seniors use to navigate their daily life. A lack of public transportation, for example, can post an immediate barrier to food access—if the member feels comfortable enough to go out in the first place.

The Far from Alone campaign will offer resources and toolkits on the risks associated with loneliness and social isolation, and the difference between those two situations. The companies will also be sharing ways to connect with others during social distancing.

Shrank said the goal is both to bring attention to these concerns and to normalize the struggles.

“We thought it was really critical for us to make some noise about it,” he said.

Parker said having a strong awareness program is the foundation of a broader effort to reach people in “nuanced” ways that best fit their needs. Shrank echoed him, saying the organizations are treating the campaign as the first step in a “steady drumbeat” of future solutions to tackle loneliness.

“I just think it’s really critical at this moment to provide as much awareness as possible to those who historically are not getting the information as fast,” Parker said.