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Why the UK's new 'Minister for Loneliness' makes sense

February 13, 2018

    I caught the 'politics bug' soon after moving to Washington DC. Somewhat surprisingly, my favourite political event to tune into was not the election of the President but rather the naming of their cabinet.

    As a general spectacle, the cabinet nominees are like an All-Star team—a mix of political players, up-and-comers, and technocratic experts—all tasked with managing fundamental societal pillars. Cabinet announcements also signal priorities and emphasis which a new government plans to focus on throughout its tenure.

    For that reason, it's worth taking note when an entirely new cabinet position is established. In those rare instances, it says "our government is committing to addressing a problem that needs dedicated resources and attention."

    That is why I was heartened to hear that the UK recently created a brand new cabinet position: the Minister for Loneliness.

    A few years ago I would have scoffed at this idea. But increasingly, data shows that social isolation has a significant impact on a person's overall health resiliency.

    That concept hit home in 2015 when my team was conducting research on the rising-risk patient population. A doctor at clinical commissioning group (the UK version of a public payer for health care) told us that he found living alone as a senior citizen to carry the same health risks as being a regular smoker. It also hit home to uncover through our research that good health care—particularly through a population health lens—is more than connected clinical services and high-quality care delivery. It's really about weaving clinical and psychosocial services together to support patients in their ongoing health management.

    The culmination of that research is captured in the study Mind the Gap: Managing the Rising-Risk Patient Population. Our findings indicate that whether it's the Minister for Loneliness, a care manager, or a family member caring for a patient, there are a few key insights on how to approach people's social isolation:

    1. People will not always be immediately forthcoming. Isolation can be a taboo topic. It often requires time and trust to surface those needs and issues.
    2. Consider the possibilities of virtual networks. We've seen these types of initiatives help people overcome physical remoteness by offering them the option to connect with others electronically.
    3. Non-traditional partnerships can be key. When health and social care at capacity, consider which businesses and entities can be the eyes, ears, and potential support for people suffering from social isolation.

    The last point reminds me of one my favorite cases. It's the Call and Check Programme from the States of Jersey, which uses postal workers to check-in on elderly citizens who might live alone. The postal workers provide appointment reminders or deliver prescriptions in their regular visits. I love this concept because it's been a win for both patients and the postal service (they receive a small fee for participating) and connects health care with the rest of the community to support those feeling isolated in their day-to-day lives.

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