February 20, 2008

Friends, Family & Post-surgical Outcomes

An article in this week’s Journal of the American College of Surgeons shows that “patients with larger social networks showed better outcomes than patients with small or nonexistent social networks.” The abstract is available online.

Surgical patients with a strong network of friends & family reported better scores for anxiety, depression, inner peace, relaxation, pain intensity and pain unpleasantness for every day of the five post-surgical follow-up days. They needed fewer painkillers and were less likely than other patients to stay in the hospital longer than 7 days. Interestingly, attending a weekly social function had a more significant effect than attending a weekly worship service (which, as the authors write “underscores the need to control for social interactions in general when studying the effect of religious observance on health,” but as I would write, you can’t just go and sit in the pew to get the benefits).

It was a sample of elderly men, and therefore the authors plead for caution in extrapolating from the findings, but I think it’s certainly worth a discussion: What is technology’s role? What is the effect of a supportive online community, in addition to the off-line friends & family measured in most studies? Is the social network effect positive, as my colleagues reported in “The Strength of Internet Ties”? Or are there hidden dangers?

Comments are welcome on e-patients.net.