Studies show that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking or obesity. People who are lonely are at higher risk of diabetes, heart disease and dementia.
So what if a doctor could prescribe social connection? What if the entire community was treated as part of the health care system, and if social connection and health were treated as though they went hand in hand?
In one small town—Frome, England—they are. And they have the data to prove it pays off.
In 2013 general practitioner Dr. Helen Kingston started a project called Compassionate Frome when she noticed that many of her patients were coming into her clinic complaining of loneliness. Compassionate Frome began training “health connectors”—volunteers in the community who understand the range of health and wellness services available to patients. When someone was struggling with their health and complaining of loneliness, a health connector would be assigned to meet with that person and talk with them, providing a social connection while also helping them find the resources to address their health concerns.
These health connectors could connect the patients to traditional medical services, but also to social services: discussion groups, a “shed” where men could come together to work on projects, group exercise classes, help with shopping, help joining a community choir, even a befriending service.
Compassionate Frome started health cafes where people could sit around coffee and cake and discuss their health with friends, volunteers and health care practitioners alike, or simply come for the company. They also trained health connectors out in the community—everyday people like hairdressers, baristas and taxi drivers—to help connect people with services right on the spot when a health issue or an issue of loneliness came up casually in conversation.
The result? Hospital visits went down. Health spending went down. And social capital went way, way up.
A study published in Resurgence and Ecologist comparing health data from 2013/2014 to 2016/2017 showed that while hospital visits across the county increased by 29 percent during that time, visits dropped by 17 percent in Frome. While health care costs rose by 21 percent across the Somerset region, costs in Frome actually fell by the same amount.
“In terms of magnitude this represents five percent of the total health budget. No other factors were attributable to the fall in hospital admission rates,” Julian Abel, a consultant in palliative care who is involved in the project told Resurgence and Ecologist.
“For every £1 spent on this scheme, the National Health Service is saving £6,” said Dr. Kingston in an interview with the BBC.
Today the Compassionate Frome project falls under Health Connections Mendip, the community development service at Frome Medical Practice. They have 400 groups and organizations offering support, advice, companionship and creative activity, including support groups for specialized issues like hearing support, coping with COPD and retiring, as well as cafes to discuss any and all themes related to death. They have trained over 1,100 community connectors who each talk to an average of 20 people per year, resulting in over 22,000 health and community connections annually—nearly the entire population of the town.
The initiative is spreading across the Somerset area now, and has inspired a similar program now being implemented by a palliative care team in Minnesota.