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Can Formal Peer Support Help People With Chronic Conditions?

A Community Health Story
September 26, 2022

When diagnosed with a chronic condition or illness, 70% of people turn to their physician for more information, and 60% turn to their friends and families for support. Additionally, more and more people are turning to peers to get insights from those with similar lived experiences. What if this kind of peer advice and guidance was a formal, integrated part of care plans for more conditions, as it has become for substance use and mental health?

Peer Support in Behavioral Health

Integrating peer support specialists has proven effective for people being treated for mental health or substance use disorders (MH/SUD). Peer support specialists draw on their lived experiences with MH/SUD to build true connections with people in similar situations. Having someone on their care team who has successfully navigated what they are now experiencing provides a unique ally who can understand and validate their experiences.

Passing the Promoting Effective and Empowering Recovery Services in Medicare (PEERS) Act of 2021 would reinforce the unique role of peer support specialists who support MH/SUD conditions. Potentially it could open the door to integrating peer support specialists into treatment of other chronic conditions.

Research on Peer Support

Research demonstrates how varying levels of peer support can positively impact health outcomes. Key to success is making sure people are paired with peers with synchronous experiences — so a person with the same condition. Survivor peers are making themselves available to those with suicidal ideations or attempts, where support groups were once mainly family members of those who died.

Increasing peer support within ethnic and cultural communities that share similar health risks can improve outcomes and quality of life among participants. A study of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people found they faced healthcare barriers and an increased likelihood to develop cancer. Peer support and shared decision-making within these communities are expected to increase their participation in cancer care.

Ways to Get Peer Support

Two ways of receiving peer support are available. The first is to seek out support groups. People may become overwhelmed in searching for the right support group or frustrated when they encounter barriers to participation. Barriers can include not feeling comfortable meeting in person or lacking safe internet access to connect online.

The second way is to integrate peer support services within a traditional care team, so it’s an automatic and seamless part of the care plan, not something people have to take on themselves. Training and certification requirements would make sure the peer has skills to support the person in addition to sharing their lived experience. Support would include removing barriers to care through their working relationships with the healthcare team members and supporting the team by helping to implement care plans.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA) lists 12 core competencies for MH/SUD peer workers. They include supporting recovery planning, helping peers manage crises, and supporting their growth and development.

Peer Support for More Chronic Conditions

The model developed through SAMHSA could be used to integrate peers into healthcare teams for other chronic conditions and illness. The core competencies could be the same or very similar to what has proved successful for the MH/SUD field. States could use their existing peer worker requirements as a foundation to expand into other conditions.

Diabetes and heart conditions are areas that could benefit from integrated peer support. These conditions often require systemic life changes that can be overwhelming. A trained peer can provide grounding and guidance to someone taking on diet and activity level changes, learning to monitor and understand health indicators, and adjusting to a new way of life.

The MH/SUD field has successfully integrated the skills of peer workers in supporting people as part of their care plans. Following this lead, the potential for the best health outcomes for people with other chronic conditions can be improved by integrating trained peer support workers within traditional healthcare teams.

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