team-386673_1280One in five people are lonely, a statistic James Maskell, host and founder of the Functional Forum/Evolution of Medicine, shared with attendees at the Integrative Healthcare Symposium earlier this morning. People who are lonely, he says, have a greater risk for chronic disease mortality.

Studies have shown people who fared the best leaned in to relationships, says Maskell. However, America’s social structure has evaporated. Families no longer live in multigenerational houses and technology has created a disconnect amongst social circles. But when individuals have access to a strong community, healthcare costs can be reduced by as much as 40 percent, a concept demonstrated in the “Blue Zones”.

This is because broad sets of genes or genetic profiles are regulated by stress, says Maskell. Social stress has one of the biggest affects on overall health, in particular targeted rejection, which is the strongest risk factor for depression. When an individual experiences rejection—such as getting fired or breaking up with a significant other—their health risk goes up by 21 percent, says Maskell.

So, how can we reduce this stress caused by a lack of community? Maskell says hospitals and “traditional” practices are not the answer. “Preventative medicine and hospitals dont’ mix,” he says. “We have to get rid of the idea that health must be created in a hospital or traditional medical setting, and instead look at the more unconventional opportunities.”

One example Maskell provided is CrossFit, a community where people come together with a shared interested in getting healthy and working out. Health is created and sustained because people are working as a team, but is also reduces social stress. When it comes to creating a sustainable community that allows individuals to take control of their own health and prevent chronic disease in a patient practice, Maskell says providers need to take and educational approach. “When you’re trying to build a driving school, don’t model it on a body repair shop,” he says. “Patients can prevent chronic disease themselves, but we need to give them the tools.”

But what is a community, and how can practitioners build one from scratch? A community is defined as a group of people bonded together by gifts and stories. Practitioners need to identify the gifts and stories they want to impart to their patients, Maskell says.

Group education and meets are a viable option for providers. To market a practice, for example, consider hosting a community meeting or panel discussion, open to the public, where you give individuals a chance to learn about your integrative practices and sign up for an appointment.

Within a practice, providers may decide to host a new patient orientation, where at least one billable provider, a health coach, and/or other practitioners meet with patients in a group setting, allowing patients to network with one another and learn about preventive medicine together. Group visits are inexpensive, help with resource constrains, and instill accountability and vulnerability in patients who are looking to become healthier. “Providers should be looking to create a remarkable experience for their patients, one that gives them control of their own health and makes them feel like they have a voice in their care,” says Maskell.

Other integrative ways to create a community within a patient practice include weekly running or walking groups, grocery store tours, and community cooking classes. “The goal is inspiring people towards participating in their care,” says Maskell. “Integrative medicine is the only type of medicine that is participatory and is the future of preventing noncommunicable disease.”

Editor’s note: This article is part of live coverage from the Integrative Healthcare Symposium. Click here to learn more.