How Your Social Network Can Foster a Culture of Health

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kids playingWe’ve known for a while that a where people live, learn, work, and play can have a bigger impact on their health than genetics or medical care.

Everything from housing to education to available transportation to access to physical activity to the availability of quality affordable foods play a large role in our health.

More recently, we’ve discovered that how healthy our friends and family are can have a huge bearing on healthy we are. According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, “a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57%…if he or she had a friend who became obese.”

It follows, though, that the opposite could be true: If you and your friends and family are trying to get healthy, you can support each other and make your efforts far more successful. To help folks with this type of healthy approach, Microclinic International (MCI), a not-for-profit development organization that works to prevent or manage deadly, chronic diseases worldwide, is helping folks form these types of healthy social networks, which they call microclinics.

Writing for TFAH’s Prevention and Public Health Stories in the States, Daniel Zoughbie, MCI’s founder, wrote, “Our model brings together groups of two or more in a ‘microclinic.’ A microclinic is not a building but rather a real-life social group formed by the participant’s family, friends, colleagues, and/or peers. Each group first meets in a central location, where they receive education and engage in collective activities to promote healthy lifestyles. Then they take what they have learned back to their homes, businesses, and social networks.”

In essence, MCI goes beyond the traditional health care setting to include all the aspects of life that help a person become healthy and thereby extend a doctor’s advice into the community. Their fascinating model relies on leveraging existing resources, so there is no added cost or major infrastructure need. In fact, microclinic programs do not require any significant investment, and sustaining the program requires four surprisingly simple aspects: participant recruitment, education, health screenings, and group support.

Specifically, in 2011, MCI was recruited by Humana to work intensively in Bell County, located in Appalachia in southeastern Kentucky. Since then, MCI, through a partnership with the local health department, was able to create about 170 microclinic groups, touching 500 or so residents.

In their microclinics, people took weekly health classes, sampled unfamiliar healthy foods, and began exercising. Also, members of the same microclinic took cooking classes together and actually went through each other’s fridges and pantries to swap out unhealthy foods.

It shouldn’t be shocking that these types of interventions were a success. Participants lost weight and maintained weight loss. On a personal level, one participant bought into portion control and physical activity and successfully fought high blood sugar levels and obesity. What’s so great about her example is that it spread to her neighbor, who wasn’t even a part of her microclinic but lost more than 50 pounds.

A peer-reviewed study said that the microclinic model demonstrates “promise for the power of social networks to propagate healthy lifestyle behaviors for public health.” This is evident in Bell County: In response to increased demand for access to healthy choices, three local parks now have fitness equipment, and there is a new five-acre community garden where residents grow fresh food. Also, schools have created healthy nutrition and physical activity programs.

Research shows that people who want to be healthy sometimes need a bit of help from friends, families, and their broader communities. Certainly one way to provide the support people need is through harnessing their daily interactions and forming healthy social networks. Through these networks, as evidenced by MCI’s work, a true culture of health is created and spread from person to person and community to community.

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