Social support lengthens lives – But how?
A recent study looks at how interventions directed at patients recovering from medical treatment or conditions can help improve outcomes, particularly by reducing overall mortality. Numerous studies and clinical experiences have shown that social support, broadly understood, can have a substantial effect on survival rates and recovery times for patients in a variety of situations, but all interventions are not created equal, and more research is needed to pinpoint what types of social support are meaningful and important.
Working through the Open Science Framework, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 106 randomized controlled trials from the USA and several European countries, that looked at various types of social support interventions with a wide assortment of patient conditions. Overall, the significant findings were that interventions focused on behavioral support such as medication compliance, exercise routines or sleep patterns were more effective than those limited to emotional support, such as, for example, breast cancer survivors’ support groups.
The studies looked at support interventions that were delivered in different ways (peer support groups, telephone sessions, one-on-one nurse sessions, etc.) and blinding was not carried out, since the patient must know if they are receiving an intervention or not. Only 10 or the 106 studies included support from “naturally occurring relationships” (family) although these relationships could be expected to produce longer-lasting effects due to the ongoing and often intimate nature of such relationships. Also, most of the studies did not consider the pre-existing level of social support the patient may have had, which would seem to be an important question for determining how much effect the input could show.
Generally, the meta-analysis showed that actions taken to increase or improve social support can have a positive effect in patient recovery and survival after treatment, but the structure and duration of these interventions is clearly of great importance and, as yet, little understood.
Smith TB, Workman C, Andrews C, Barton B, Cook M, Layton R, et al. (2021) Effects of psychosocial support interventions on survival in inpatient and outpatient healthcare settings: A meta-analysis of 106 randomized controlled trials. PLoS Med 18(5): e1003595. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1003595