How peer support is connecting people and changing health outcomes

Receiving a chronic disease diagnosis can be one of the scariest moments in life. In a moment, everything changes. The doctor will prescribe medications, treatments, or therapies, and recommend lifestyle changes. But at the end of the day, it is up to each individual to follow through with the doctor’s instructions. The problem is that for many, accepting a diagnosis, learning to live with it, and making the necessary changes isn’t easy.

Regimens are often complex, and self-care may feel like a luxury patients can’t prioritize. Many people have comorbidities that complicate matters further. Today, medical systems feel impersonal and put patients into a passive role of being told what to do and following what they are told. The system is built to treat and manage the disease, not to support patients outside of a doctor visit. So patients embark on a life-long journey of coping and, hopefully, thriving despite their disease.

Humans are social creatures, and support from others is critical to well-being. Today, as people take a more active role in their healthcare, they are turning to each other for support from those that have been there – and it’s working. Peer-to-peer support is emerging as one of the best ways to fill in the gaps left by the medical system and help people successfully manage their conditions.

The Biggest Obstacle: Patient Mindset

Changing one’s lifestyle – whether that means remembering to take a pill twice a day, making follow-up appointments, exercising, or eating differently — can be the hardest challenge to overcome. When facing a drastic change or accepting a new way of living, feelings of frustration and fear can quickly bubble to the surface. Patients can easily become overwhelmed as they learn more about their condition. And although a million questions can race through the mind, patients can’t call their doctors anytime they have a question. This leaves them feeling alone and frustrated.

Together the emotional and physical toll can stop patients from moving forward and taking care of themselves, derailing any progress that may have been made. Developing self-management habits and coping skills are critical for treatments to be effective and for patients to have the best chances at success. Yet, the medical system offers few resources in this area. 

Peer to Peer Support: Unsung Heroes

Of course, friends and family can offer support, but as they aren’t battling the same condition, they can’t provide the tried-and-tested advice of someone who’s been on a similar journey. But peer support groups can! Traditionally, peer support groups were location-based so people could meet up weekly or monthly. But now we have the internet.

Group meetings provide an environment for giving and receiving help in a respectful and supportive way, and for offering insights gathered along similar journeys. Members create bonds through shared experiences, and they genuinely help others as they navigate their way through their challenges. In these safe spaces, people feel comfortable being open and honest without the fear of judgment. Everyone can share their emotional and physical hardships while cheering each other on during the good times.

Today, peer support is seen as a vital piece of the management and recovery puzzle, complementing traditional care from doctors and the medical system at large.

Studies show that those who lean on peer support groups develop better self-management strategies, gain greater self-confidence, and feel less isolated. In addition, those who use peer-based support have better health outcomes and are more successful with behavior modification.

How the Internet Has Transformed Peer Support

People rely on the internet for an unending amount of information. Thousands of readily accessible research, reports, and blogs serve as knowledge hubs that do answer questions but in a one-directional way.

That’s why online peer to peer support groups have flourished, picking up where internet research leaves off. Online groups are accessible to anyone, anywhere. People can visit a group 24/7 to post questions, offer practical advice and emotional support, or share research links and life-hacks. These communities are filled with others who have also received the same diagnosis and offer a safe, secure place for people to meet virtually and learn from the collective wisdom of others.

Peer support groups are also great because they offer some anonymity for users. Questions that people might be embarrassed to ask face-to-face can be discussed without fear or shame. Research shows that many conversations in these groups are related to issues beyond the medical conditions themselves and include love, sex, family life, finances, and more. The faceless quality of these groups also lets users be valued for their contributions rather than their physical appearance.

Peer support has been with us for most of human history. Today, online support bridges between people near and far, connecting those who might have no other access to support. In the darkest of moments, there is always someone online to provide hope, to offer an encouraging word. And, beyond support, community members are digital cheerleaders, they celebrate wins. Peer support is always there to empower people to take the next steps on their path to a healthier, happier existence.

Photo: Nataliia Nesterenko, Getty Images

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