Viewpoint: How peer-to-peer healthcare can ease patient anxiety

When patients face a new health problem, clinicians may not be readily available to give them the emotional support they need, but may help fill those gaps, two professors write in The New York Times.

Peer-to-peer health care, or peer health advice, involves patients sharing health stories and learning from one another through unpaid opportunities such as through in-person mentorship, online chat groups or phone calls.

Here are seven insights from the op-ed, written by Aaron Carroll, MD, professor of pediatrics the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, and Austin Frakt, PhD, associate professor with Boston University's School of Public Health.

1. "In an ideal world, when we are faced with a new health problem, a clinician is available to sit down and address all our questions and anxieties about the condition and its treatment," the authors write. "This ideal is rarely met in the United States health system. More typically, we're rushed through doctor visits that fly by too quickly for us to gather our thoughts."

To address this issue, the authors discuss how other patients can help answer questions and ease anxieties over health conditions. "They have (or have had) your condition, as well as your anxieties and questions, and they've found a path through," the authors write. "Their journeys can be informative and helpful, and can also help you prepare for the next session with a doctor."

2. The internet has served as a useful tool for patients to find other people with their health problem, the authors write. For example, the Database of Patients' Experiences has a collection of videos where patients share their experiences about different health conditions.

3. Additionally, other patients' stories can help more people seek treatment, the authors argue. After one of the authors wrote a blog post about sleep apnea, several of his colleagues said they thought they may have the condition, but had not treated it yet, nothing that the blog encouraged them to change that.

4. The patients sharing their stories can also benefit, the authors write. "It's very gratifying to help others manage these issues; I know how helpful it can be," said Noel Peters, a former breast cancer patient who now serves as a mentor to new ones. "I didn't have a mentor to help me through my breast cancer treatment. I was very isolated, sitting home alone by myself. It was very depressing."

5. Sharing stories as part of research has also shown to be beneficial for patients, the authors write. "When Aaron has conducted focus groups of patients and parents with chronic conditions, like diabetes, many participants reported that the biggest benefit to them was participating, sharing their stories and making connections with others going through the same issues."

6. But peer-to-peer healthcare may have downsides, the authors note. "Peer advice shouldn't be confused with using the internet for diagnosis, a practice that studies have shown is not very accurate," the authors write.

Peer sharing may not be helpful since people often respond differently to treatment, the authors write. "What worked for us may not for you and vice versa. Additionally, in some cases peer sharing can skew perspectives in dangerous ways. Misinformation wrapped up in a personal healthcare story can have a huge negative impact for all of us."

7. "A new diagnosis or big change in health can be frightening. In such circumstances, we often have a lot of questions, but we may not know the range of possibilities for treatment or where to start," the authors conclude. "The health system can be helpful, but too often it isn't. A little help from friends can go a long way."

More articles on patient engagement: 
Patients are losing their patience: 7 ways healthcare consumers are demanding more
Geisinger rolls out clinical DNA sequencing program
Patients don't care if physicians have tattoos or piercings, study finds

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