Addressing the Epidemic of Loneliness
The U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a stark warning this week about the harmful health effects of loneliness, shining a high-profile spotlight on a topic The MetroHealth System has been working for years to address.
Dr. Murthy’s advisory declares “the epidemic of isolation and loneliness” a public health concern and warns that a lack of connection with others increases the risk for premature death to more than 60 percent – as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. MetroHealth has been a leading voice in raising awareness about this risk, screening patients for loneliness as part of its initiative to identify patients at risk for social drivers of health (SDOH).
In 2021, the MetroHealth Institute for H.O.P.E.TM unveiled Calls for HOPE, a program that pairs volunteers with patients found through screening to be experiencing isolation. Through regular phone calls, volunteers check in with their patient partners, engaging in social conversation and developing the human connections that are so vital to good health. The program was highlighted in the March 2023 issue of Catalyst, the New England Journal of Medicine’s online journal.
The Surgeon General’s advisory calls for a greater nationwide focus on advancing social connection.
“Given the profound consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an opportunity, and an obligation, to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis,” Dr. Murthy states in a letter accompanying the advisory. “If we fail to do so, we will pay an ever-increasing price in the form of our individual and collective health and well-being.”
MetroHealth already is taking action. In addition to Calls for HOPE, the Institute for H.O.P.E.TM has developed several initiatives to help its patients and neighbors build social connections.
Earlier this year, MetroHealth worked with its partners Digital C, Dollar Bank and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority to connect more than 1,100 households to low-cost high-speed internet service. Art and music therapy programs allow participants to interact with others while engaging in creative arts activities. The health system also has plans for a Social Prescribing of the Arts pilot program, in which a provider — a physician or a community health worker, for example – encourages a socially isolated patient to attend free neighborhood art classes or music performances.
“We are well aware of the negative health outcomes associated with social isolation – an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, dementia and suicide,” said Sue Fuehrer, President, Institute for H.O.P.E.TM “So when our SDOH screening found that 49% of our patients were experiencing loneliness and isolation, we knew we had to do something. Calls for HOPE and our other programs are examples of the sort of meaningful, effective interventions that the MetroHealth Institute for H.O.P.E.TM aims to create as we work to help our patients make real changes to improve their health and wellness.”
Laurie Wise-Maher, Prospect Pipeline and Research Specialist for The MetroHealth Foundation, volunteers for the Calls for HOPE program. After completing training, she was paired with a woman who indicated through her screening form that she was feeling lonely.
The two chatted every week for three or four months and built a warm rapport. But then Laurie’s calls started to go unanswered, and she became concerned that her patient partner might be unwell.
“She finally let us know that she was OK. She was busy; she was volunteering,” Laurie said. “She was being more active in her life, so she didn’t need the Calls for HOPE service anymore. I thought that was phenomenal. I see that as the program fulfilling its mission.”
The Calls for HOPE program is always recruiting volunteers, and Laurie highly recommends the experience.
“It’s the idea that you are letting someone know that they can count on someone checking in them. Not checking in like a job, but as a friend,” said Laurie, who is awaiting her next Calls for HOPE assignment. “Just knowing someone is out there thinking about you is everything. When you think of all the ways you can volunteer and give, it’s such a simple gift.”
If you are interested in volunteering with Calls for HOPE, please email CallsforHOPE@metrohealth.org with your contact information. Please put volunteer in the subject line.
Founded in 1837, MetroHealth is leading the way to a healthier you and a healthier community through service, teaching, discovery, and teamwork. Cuyahoga County’s public, safety-net hospital system, MetroHealth meets people where they are, providing care through four hospitals, four emergency departments, and more than 20 health centers and 40 additional sites. Each day, our 8,000 employees focus on providing our community with equitable health care–through patient-focused research, access to care, and support services–that seeks to eradicate health disparities rooted in systematic barriers. For more information, visit metrohealth.org.