- Patient support groups are a helpful strategy for improving patient health literacy and empowerment, ultimately leading to better health decisions and improved medication adherence, according to research published in the American Journal of Managed Care.
Low medication adherence plagues chronically ill patients across the country, with most patients taking only about half of their prescribed treatments, the researchers said. This problem presents a significant public health and financial burden on the government.
However, after conducting an extensive literature review and case study investigation, a research team identified patient support groups as one effective method for improving medication adherence.
Patient support groups – or groups of patients tackling and discussing similar health issues – help patients become more educated about and empowered in their own healthcare, leading to better health decisions. One popular example of a patient support group is Alcoholics Anonymous, the researchers explained.
“How exactly peer-to-peer support works has not been effectively studied to date, but it is generally understood that social influence seems to be the key,” the research team said.
“As an individual is attempting to make a lifestyle change (e.g., weight loss, addiction, recovery from a medical event, medication adherence), surrounding himself or herself with others who encourage and support new and positive behavior may improve long-term outcomes of success.”
Through the literature, the researchers also found that peer support groups rely on community settings, specific guidance, strong oversight, and leadership training for success. Patient support groups require significant structure to effectively achieve their patient wellness goals.
In a 2006 study from the California Health Foundation, patients learned critical self-management skills from their patient support groups, the researchers reported.
“Using peer-led self-management programs, patients can learn about problem-solving skills, treatment adherence, and the health system,” the researchers said. “Peers who are living with chronic conditions and have been trained can execute support group meetings, provide 1-on-1 support, and develop community-strengthening activities that improve outcomes.”
Patient support groups also allowed individuals to forge relationships with others experiencing similar health problems, as well as better relationships with their own providers. These relationships helped reinforce the importance of taking medications and helped create paths to understanding non-financial reasons for medication non-adherence.
“Social support systems are more likely to produce the social networks that can encourage an individual to adhere to treatment and make positive lifestyle changes, and provide additional resources for services for patients,” the researchers pointed out.
“This is where peer-to-peer support enters into the healthcare equation: peer supporters can be the social system that patients need to become educated on the importance of medication adherence and to provide encouragement for lifestyle changes that will impact their healthcare outcomes,” the research team continued.
Ultimately, the success of patient support groups presents an opportunity to improve healthcare’s financial bottom line. Patient support groups improve patient health literacy, empowerment, and ultimately medication adherence, all for a lower cost than most physician- or technology-based interventions.
“Health systems could see a reduction in readmission rates, lower healthcare costs across the spectrum, and adherence to treatments that will improve the health of the community,” the research team noted. “The cost of the programs is a minimal cost to the healthcare system and could enhance the ability of patients to truly be empowered to adhere to the treatments they prescribed.”
Despite these benefits, the researchers acknowledged that there is still work to be done. This study consisted solely of a literature review. Future studies should include a pilot test to determine the true effectiveness of patient support groups on medication adherence, the researchers suggested.
“There is a gap in notable research in medication adherence and peer-to-peer support programs, and patient reported outcomes are difficult to quantify,” the research team said. “Creating a multicenter pilot program to follow patients over the course of a 12- to 18-month period to compare with patients who do not receive peer support services would be a valuable undertaking.”
Pending a pilot program’s success, the researchers say that patient support groups can drive healthcare organizations further into patient-centered care.
“For healthcare to truly be patient centered and to address the barriers of patient care that currently plague the healthcare system currently, peer support and personal empowerment of the patient are keys to success,” the researchers concluded.
“Providing support and educational resources can provide patients with the ability to make better healthcare choices and become more adherent to treatment plans and can improve their overall emotional and physical health.”