Clinical implications of loneliness
With the advancements in technology, our capabilities to substitute personal human interactions have grown exponentially. The use of telemedicine, video- and audio-conferencing communications have changed the landscape of our capacities to exchange information. This could be a blessing and a curse. While the use of digital platforms for virtual communication is tempting, we should preserve human interactions as much as possible, particularly when caring for patients affected by COVID-19. Interpersonal “connectedness” plays a crucial role in providing psychological and psychotherapeutic support, particularly when the number of human encounters is already limited.
Social distancing requirements have magnified loneliness. Several studies demonstrate that the perception of loneliness leads to poor health outcomes, including lower immunity, increased peripheral vascular resistance,3 and higher overall mortality.4 Loneliness can lead to functional impairment, such as poor social skills, and even increased inflammation.5 The negative emotional impact of SARS-CoV-2 echoes the experiences of patients affected by the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003. However, with COVID-19, we are witnessing the amplified effects of loneliness on a global scale. The majority of affected patients during the 2003 SARS outbreak in Canada reported loneliness, fear, aggression, and boredom: They had concerns about the impacts of the infection on loved ones, and psychological support was required for many patients with mild to moderate SARS disease.6
Nonpharmacological management strategies for battling loneliness
Utilization of early supportive services has been well described in literature and includes extending additional resources such as books, newspapers and, most importantly, additional in-person time to our patients.6 Maintaining rapport with patients’ families is also helpful in reducing anxiety and fear. The following measures have been suggested to prevent the negative impacts of loneliness and should be considered when caring for hospitalized patients diagnosed with COVID-19.7
- Screen patients for depression and delirium and utilize delirium prevention measures throughout the hospitalization.
- Educate patients about the signs and symptoms of loneliness, fear, and anxiety.
- Extend additional resources to patients, including books, magazines, and newspapers.
- Keep the patient’s cell or hospital phone within their reach.
- Adequately manage pain and prevent insomnia.
- Communicate frequently, utilizing audio- and visual-teleconferencing platforms that simultaneously include the patient and their loved ones.
- For patients who continue to exhibit feelings of loneliness despite the above interventions, consider consultations with psychiatry to offer additional coping strategies.
- Ensure a multidisciplinary approach when applicable – proactive consultation with the members of a palliative care team, ethics, spiritual health, social and ancillary services.
It is important to recognize how vulnerable our patients are. Diagnosed with COVID-19, and caught in the midst of the current pandemic, not only do they suffer from the physical effects of this novel disease, but they also have to endure prolonged confinement, social isolation, and uncertainty – all wrapped in a cloak of loneliness and fear.
With our main focus being on the management of a largely unknown viral illness, patients’ personal experiences can be easily overlooked. It is vital for us as health care providers on the front lines to recognize, reflect, and reform to ease our patients’ journey through COVID-19.
Dr. Burklin is an assistant professor of medicine, division of hospital medicine, at the department of medicine, Emory University, Atlanta. Dr. Wiley is an assistant professor of medicine, division of infectious disease, at the department of Medicine, Emory University, Atlanta.
1. Schlomann A et al. Use of information and communication technology (ICT) devices among the oldest-old: Loneliness, anomie, and autonomy. Innov Aging. 2020 Jan 1;4(2):igz050.
2. McGinty E et al. Psychological distress and loneliness reported by U.S. adults in 2018 and April 2020. JAMA. 2020 Jun 3. doi: 10.1001/jama.2020.9740. 3. Wang J et al. Associations between loneliness and perceived social support and outcomes of mental health problems: A systematic review. BMC Psychiatry. 2018 May 29;18(1):156.
4. Luo Y et al. Loneliness, health, and mortality in old age: A national longitudinal study. Soc Sci Med. 2012 Mar;74(6):907-14.
5. Smith KJ et al. The association between loneliness, social isolation, and inflammation: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2020 Feb 21; 112:519-41.
6. Maunder R et al. The immediate psychological and occupational impact of the 2003 SARS outbreak in a teaching hospital. CMAJ. 2003 May 13;168(10):1245-51.
7. Masi CM et al. A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness. Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2011 Aug;15(3):219-66.