The people we surround ourselves with have a direct impact on our health choices, from the food we eat to the physical activity we perform. For patients, friends and family affect how well they follow the doctor's orders.
Nurses often have the opportunity to speak with patients' loved ones, giving nurses a chance to enlist some help in creating meaningful outcomes.
How friends and family influence health decisions
Consider this common scenario: It's Saturday afternoon and you feel your stomach growl. There's not much food in the house, so you call up a friend and ask if they want to grab a bite. Nothing sticks out specifically, so you let him or her pick the restaurant.
For many people, this situation has little immediate effect on personal health. If your friend picks a greasy burger place, you might consider it a treat. But for someone with a chronic condition, such as diabetes, too many trips to fast food restaurants can have severe consequences.
Dr. David Scales, writing for the Harvard Health Blog, reported that he had encountered this exact situation with a young patient. Social influence led the diabetic youth to eat too much sugary food, which put him in the hospital. Without medical attention, the patient may have died.
This example shows that nurses shouldn't assume patients will follow treatment plans to a T. Too often, peer pressure and social influence – or ignorance – overwhelms the prescribed plan.
Helping patients stay healthy
Social influence on patient health extends beyond food choices. Kimberly Burke, the director of Colorado State University's adult fitness program, reported that people with sedentary friends tend to get less physical activity. The influence may be subtle, but it's certainly there.
Consider Alzheimer's patients. Rush University Medical Center explained that people who regularly feel lonely are more at risk for Alzheimer's disease than those who have rich, active social lives. In this case, friends and family can help prevent chronic illness just by being there for a chat.
"Friends and family can help patients follow a treatment plan."
Social interactions can affect patient health in both directions. Whether a patient is dealing with a chronic condition or an acute illness, his or her friends and family will have some effect on the treatment's outcome. Anyone who has been enticed away from a sickbed for a party knows that the next morning comes with worse aches and pains.
Nurses should strive to engage family members when possible. In a hospital setting, nurses often encounter a patient's visitors. If there's complicated medical information that must be remembered and followed correctly, it can help to explain it to the patient's family – even if the patient is an adult. Remind the others that their friend's health depends on following the doctor's instructions.
Patients who have a solid support network of friends and family will have a much better treatment experience. Those with chronic conditions may need to be reminded what's best for their health, and since a nurse and doctor can't always be there, friends and family must play this important role.