Pursuing Wellness and the Good Life

In our efforts to encourage prevention and wellness, we often advise patients to exercise, eat better, and manage their stress. Let’s not overlook the importance of a strong social network.

By Paul Cerrato, senior research analyst and communications specialist, Mayo Clinic Platform, and John Halamka, M.D., President, Mayo Clinic Platform.

Although our blog series is called The Digital Health Frontier, a more precise title might have been The Digital Medicine Frontier since most of our articles have focused on the digital tools needed to improve diagnosis and treatment, not on health, wellness, and prevention. And for good reason. As clinicians and researchers, we see a great deal of human suffering resulting from a long list of disorders, many of which have been overlooked or misdiagnosed. By one estimate about 12 million patients are misdiagnosed annually. That translates into a lot of pain and discomfort, and an opportunity to develop innovative digital tools to uncover these disorders. And it’s certainly no surprise to find that most patients are far more concerned with alleviating their pain or curing their condition than they are in eating a healthy diet, managing stress, and getting adequate exercise.

Our current healthcare ecosystem is designed to provide little incentive for preventive care. Many chronic diseases can be prevented, or at least mitigated, with wiser lifestyle choices. By one estimate, “Among U.S. adults, more than 90 percent of type 2 diabetes, 80 percent of CAD [coronary artery disease], 70 percent of stroke, and 70 percent of colon cancer are potentially preventable by a combination of nonsmoking, avoidance of overweight, moderate physical activity, healthy diet, and moderate alcohol consumption….” How do we address the problem?

Better reimbursement policies would certainly help, but even that has its pitfalls. But one of the wellness “interventions” we rarely mention to patients is the importance of relationships, the social fabric that holds families and communities together.

The essential role that personal relationships play in patients’ wellbeing is well documented in a decades old study called the Harvard Study of Adult Development, launched in 1938. Eloquently described by Robert Waldinger, MD, and Marc Schulz, PhD in The Good Life, the program has been studying the attitudes of over 1,000 participants over 3 generations and measuring the impact these attitudes have on their health and longevity. The investigation has made one thing abundantly clear: A good life depends on strong relationships. And as Waldinger and Schulz point out: “The good life is joyful …and challenging. Full of love, but also pain… It’s a process. It includes turmoil, calm, lightness, burdens, struggles, achievements, setbacks, leaps forward, and terrible falls.” Busy clinicians rarely have the time to discuss relationships in any detail during a typical 15 minute office visit, but during your next patient encounter, think about writing a different kind of prescription: Read The Good Life.

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