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SMU's Centre of Research for Successful Ageing shared its recent findings in its 3rd Policy Roundtable. (Photo: Getty Images, Chinnapong)
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The role of social connections in ensuring seniors access healthcare

Published on 23 May 2022

It comes as no surprise to an ageing population that social networks are pivotal for providing support to seniors.

Healthcare facilities can be difficult to navigate, especially for older adults who may not be as mobile or tech-savvy as the young. Social networks can provide a way for seniors to connect with others who can help them maximise the healthcare system and find the care they need.

For seniors who are often isolated from family and friends, social networks can also provide a vital connection to the outside world. They can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation and promote mental and emotional well-being.

Already Singapore enjoys one of the world’s highest life expectancies, with an average of nearly 84 in 2022. One in seven Singaporeans was aged 65 or above in 2019, and that age group is expected to make up a quarter of the population by 2030.

Are strong social networks therefore the secret behind keeping seniors healthy for as long as possible?

Making the connections

The answer lies in a combination of physical and social factors working together for older adults to access preventative healthcare.

Micah Tan, a Research Associate at the Singapore Management University (SMU) Centre of Research for Successful Ageing (ROSA), recently investigated the interplay of how physical and social factors influence seniors in protecting their health. Until now, little peer-reviewed research had looked at both factors together.

Micah presented his research highlights at ROSA’s 3rd policy roundtable, held in April 2022. The study drew on responses from more than 4,100 people aged 56 to 75 surveyed in August 2021.

“A significant challenge for preventive healthcare models is the underutilisation of preventive healthcare services,” Micah notes.

“This potentially leads to the failure to identify healthcare issues early and address them through lifestyle changes.”

The study examines the process that leads older adults to utilize healthcare services, specifically interactions that precipitate the decision to visit a doctor when in need of health advice. Rather than any physical or social infrastructure in silos, it was found that the influence of social networks was most important in the absence of nearby conventional healthcare clinics.

Nudges for health

Social networks are powerful conduits to transmit health resources ranging from medical care, support and information. They can act as “motivators” for individuals to use healthcare services or visit their doctor.

For example, older adults may seek healthcare advice based on word-of-mouth recommendations of a doctor and other means of information dissemination, in tandem with proximity to a healthcare clinic. Older adults may also rely on support from friends and family to make physical trips to clinics due to their infirmity.

The study found that respondents with a conventional healthcare clinic within a 10-minute walk from home were “significantly more likely” to visit such a practitioner all the time when in need of health advice. On the other hand, seniors who only use conventional healthcare and didn’t have a clinic nearby would be more likely to visit such a clinic the more social contact they had.

“It makes sense that older adults who do not have a clinic nearby may be more reliant on forms of social support to visit healthcare facilities, because travelling longer distances on their own may be a challenge,” explains Micah.

“Our findings highlight how social networks play a very important role in buffering or compensating for the negative effects of healthcare inaccessibility on older Singaporean’s healthcare utilisation.”

The importance of volunteers for healthcare interventions    

He also suggested a simple intervention to address the common barrier to healthcare access: physical immobility and geographical distance. Older adults could be matched with community volunteers to accompany them to see their doctor, for example.

“Alternatively, we can educate older adults on how to use telemedicine or teleconsultation services, which will obviate the need for them to physically travel to a healthcare facility to consult a doctor,” adds Micah.

“This is especially relevant when older adults are more isolated or less integrated with their social networks.”

Supporting a transition to an endemic

As COVID in Singapore shifts from a pandemic to a possible endemic, seniors who were previously hesitant about connecting socially may now be motivated to socialise for health reasons.

“With the relaxing of COVID measures, it’s a good opportunity for seniors to obtain both forms of healthcare support – formally through the clinics as well as informal social support. The effects of these supports will become even more significant in nudging seniors towards visiting their doctor when needed,” says Micah.

Furthermore, policymakers can take measures to make more community resources and interventions available, so as to better connect seniors to the health ecosystem. These are just some preliminary elements on the roadmap for Singapore’s longevity agenda. There’s still much to be done to help support one of the world’s most dramatically ageing societies.