Industry Voices—How doctors and other healthcare professionals can help end the loneliness epidemic

Caregiver end of life care nursing home palliative care
Loneliness causes early death the same way smoking 15 cigarettes a day does. (Getty/KatarzynaBialasiewicz)

Loneliness is our largest, most silent health epidemic.

One of every three Americans over the age of 45 suffers from chronic loneliness, according to an AARP study. Increasing the complexity is the fact that loneliness, like cancer, does not discriminate. In a Cigna study based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale, nearly half of Americans reported sometimes or always feeling alone—and Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) was identified as the loneliest generation.

The impact of loneliness goes well beyond the emotional. Research links loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical conditions, among them high blood pressure, heart disease, dementia, and even death. In fact, loneliness causes early death the same way smoking 15 cigarettes a day does, making it even more dangerous than obesity.

So, as our definition of health evolves into a more holistic (and I would argue realistic) picture of the person, healthcare professionals cannot ignore the effects of a social condition that significantly impacts half of our country. We must lead the charge to identify and eliminate chronic loneliness as part of our standard healthcare delivery.

Photo of doctor
Omar Manejwala, M.D. (Catasys)

Physicians and other healthcare professionals must drive urgency in identifying and treating loneliness in our mission to improve healthcare delivery. Here’s why:

1. It’s precluding our ability to deliver quality care for the spend.

Analysis from U.S. federal government actuaries indicates that Americans spent $3.65 trillion on healthcare last year—among the highest in the developed world. With that kind of expense tab, we should be the healthiest nation on the planet. Sadly, we’re not.

Research from The London School of Economics and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reveals that we have the lowest life expectancy of any developed country. The Commonwealth Fund ranked America last among 11 other countries for health outcomes, despite having the highest per capita health earnings. If we identify and address psychological-social factors (including loneliness) that exacerbate illness, we will reduce ineffective and repetitive treatment and, ultimately, spend less.

RELATED: Doctors must screen patients for social isolation to address 'loneliness epidemic'

2. We already have the skillset and the patient access to identify and address loneliness better than anyone else.

As healthcare professionals, we are trained to listen and learn from our patients in order to give them the best care. This confidential, direct patient access gives us the opportunity to create the trust required to surface internal suffering. Research on social isolation (which can lead to loneliness, but is not the same as loneliness) also tells us that people who feel isolated visit us more often. Bottom line—we’re on the front lines to make a difference.

3. We now have the technology to drive impact at scale.

If we understand that rapport, empathy and understanding in our patient relationships are fundamental to better outcomes, we also know that today’s healthcare system isn’t constructed to support that approach. That’s why current advancements in healthcare technology are critical in helping us solve the challenge of identifying and addressing loneliness.

Artificial intelligence, natural language processing and sentiment analysis can already “superpower” our ability to consistently and accurately identify symptoms of loneliness in the patients we treat. Sentiment analysis, for example, takes cues from the nuances in a patient’s language and tone, enabling healthcare teams to learn more about them and adapt care to their particular needs.

If knowledge begets responsibility, we have an overwhelming body of research on loneliness that demands we act. The costs of ignoring loneliness in the healthcare delivery equation will only increase the high cost and low-value cycle that continues to plague our industry. This will, however, be an insurmountable challenge if we maintain our existing transactional model for healthcare delivery.

Effectively addressing loneliness will require us to abandon this transactional view of healthcare and make meaningful, trust-based patient relationships with our patients the norm. We now have the research (the why) and the technology (a substantial part of the how) to end the loneliness epidemic and improve the outcomes for more patients than ever before.

Omar Manejwala, M.D. is the chief medical officer of Catasys, one of the nation’s leading experts on behavioral healthcare and the author of “Craving: Why We Can’t Seem to Get Enough”. He is also a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and a fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.