Episode 102: What NASA can teach us about social isolation & loneliness

Dear Friends & Colleagues,

Welcome back to the Fall 2020 season of ‘Creating a New Healthcare’.  We are now entering the 4th year of our podcast, with over 250,000 downloads this year to date!  It’s clear that the issue of reframing healthcare has never been more important than it is at this moment.  So, if you find value in listening to the podcast, I would urge you to share it with friends and colleagues.

There is so much going on in the world right now. It’s a time of great uncertainty, volatility, distress – and opportunity.   One of the unintended consequences of the sheltering-at-home and social-distancing – necessary to combat COVID-19 – is the devastating isolation, loneliness and despair it has wreaked across the US population.  Research, prior to the pandemic, informs us that somewhere between 40 – 50% of the population experiences social isolation or loneliness.  I strongly suspect that the pandemic has raised those numbers significantly.  We also know that it’s not just the elderly.  The second most affected segment of the population are college age adults.  We desperately need a national solution to address social isolation and loneliness.

So, what can NASA teach us about social isolation & loneliness?  And, why is Humana, a major healthcare insurance company, collaborating with NASA to address social isolation?

To answer those questions, we’ll be joined today by two distinguished experts in this area – Dr. Will Shrank,  the Chief Medical Officer at Humana; and Dr. Gary Strangman – a psychologist and researcher from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).  Dr. Strangman is the Director of a “Neural Systems Group” at MGH and has also been working closely with NASA over the past 2 decades – currently as the Innovation Specialist for NASA’s Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH).

In this interview, we’ll dive into the following:

  • The physiologic and psychologic impact of social isolation on astronauts and the types of solutions NASA is exploring to deal with this.
  • Some of the similarities between space travel & sheltering-at-home in the era of COVID-19.
  • Startling statistics on the impact of social isolation on Humana’s senior members, and the types of initiatives they’ve been deploying to combat it.
  • Next steps for the collaboration between Humana and TRISH.

During the interview it becomes abundantly apparent that Gary Strangman and Will Shrank are superstars in their respective fields.  The fact that Humana is collaborating with NASA’s Translational Institute for Space Health speaks volumes about the intense focus, commitment and highly innovative approach Humana is taking to better understand and combat the epidemic of social isolation.  Humana and TRISH are also collaborating, alongside others, in a public health awareness campaign, called ‘Far from Alone’.  This program addresses health-related social needs and promotes understandings of loneliness and social isolation – issues that are exacerbated by the Coronavirus pandemic.

I recently read a quote from Atul Gawande that provides a meaningful context to the work that Dr. Shrank and Dr. Strangman, and their respective organizations, are engaged in.

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival.  But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.”

Until Next Time,
Be Safe & Be Well.

Zeev Neuwirth MD