March 19, 2019

The Trifecta Stalking Patients, HCPs … and All of Us: Isolation, Loneliness, Distrust

SXSW 2019 Promotional Poster

Each year, Intouch heads to South by Southwest to talk to experts, share insights, and get inspired by the most creative minds in the world. On the ground, we debrief, connect the dots, and distill our findings to the themes and actions that will mean the most to our teams and clients. Here’s the second of our dispatches from SXSW 2019.

In Austin at SXSW, as the Intouch team debriefed nightly and began to connect the themes we saw emerging, we were surprised to find an unexpected theme appearing from all kinds of sessions over the course of the conference. From politics to gaming, tech to film, the concept of isolation kept coming up: people’s increasing feelings of loneliness and decreasing feelings of trust and connection.

Speaker Brene Brown called it “high lonesome,” after the genre of bluegrass music of that name. Belonging (like empathy) is a fully shared experience in which you can be yourself. Fitting in, on the other hand (like sympathy) is an effortful, mediated, arms-length attempt to connect. Today, we find ourselves trying to fit in, when we desperately want to belong. She has said,

“The world feels high lonesome and heartbroken to me right now. We’ve sorted ourselves into factions based on our politics and ideology. We’ve turned away from one another and toward blame and rage. We’re lonely and untethered. And scared. So damn scared.

But rather than coming together and sharing our experiences through song and story, we’re screaming at one another from further and further away. Rather than dancing and praying together, we’re running from one another. Rather than pitching wild and innovative new ideas that could potentially change everything, we’re staying quiet and small in our bunkers and loud in our echo chambers.”

In line with this, one of the “non-obvious trends changing the future” that speaker Rohit Bhargava explained was the trend toward backstories. Talking about deeper meaning, rather than reciting one’s credentials, has always been a far more compelling method to engage someone. He also talked about “retro trust” – that people increasingly seek deliberate downgrades, away from the latest digital possibilities, in favor of feeling untethered and hoping to find truth in our nostalgia for simpler times.

Our team heard panelists discuss the dichotomy of “Designing for Emotional Experiences”: when you wish to engage people to converse and spread the word about something, you seek to help them share on social media easily. However, when you wish to engage people directly and emotionally, you seek to disconnect them from devices and create experiences where a device is secondary, unnecessary, or even prohibited.

Even in more technical sessions, such as “Shifting Healthcare Costs Impact Patient & Provider,” the concept came up. Speaker John Fistner pointed out that the purpose of organizations like his startup AblePay was to be a helpful liaison in the healthcare process. “You don’t have to feel you’re alone in this,” he said.

Feeling isolated is a global concern. In the UK, a Minister of Loneliness was appointed in 2018 to address the issue, a project first championed by MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a white-supremacist terrorist in 2016. In 2017, a government report by the Jo Cox Commission found that loneliness was as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. London was found to be the loneliest city in the world, with New York a close second.

Part of the reason for the global loneliness epidemic is that it’s far easier to give ourselves virtual experiences than real ones. Speaker Ryan Groves noted, “We’re statistical beings; what we see more, we like more.” He went on to explain the power of repetitive exposure in moving people from fear, to discomfort, to ease, to active enjoyment. Whether it’s a song we originally dislike that’s grown on us, the experience of using a new technology – or reminding ourselves how nice it is to call or visit someone rather than texting – we can’t underestimate (or not schedule for) the power of acclimatization.

One problem with distrust, loneliness, and disconnection is that it isn’t simply a question of an uncomfortable mental state. Mental health issues express themselves in a variety of negative ways, including as physical pain, as Dr. Edward Ellison of Permanente noted in “Healthcare’s Digital Disruptors: Hope Vs. Hype.”

Another reason this matters so much is that the effects are far-reaching. As Senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, “When you feel like you don’t matter, you don’t get involved.” People who feel separate from society are unable to positively contribute to the degree they otherwise could. Whether this is patients not able to help each other, carers unable to seek support, healthcare professionals struggling with burnout – we have untapped resources who simply need help and connection to be able to offer a great deal more to all of us.

In a world of “health-washing” where healthy lifestyle branding is now espoused by everyone from Coca-Cola to your local hospital, “Who can you trust?” asked panelist Dawn Laguens of IDEAO.

To build relationships with your audiences, connect with them in meaningful ways.
Stacey Abrams, in conversation with PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, said, “People care about their lives [not your political party or brand]: whether you see them, their story, their pain. They need to be respected.”

Lead with humility to create better work.
Harken back to leadership that feels retro now, like the quiet request from Jim Henson that Frank Oz related: When Henson asked Oz to direct The Dark Crystal with him, Oz recalled, he asked why. Henson replied simply, “Because I think it’ll be better.”

Oz shared other anecdotes that described the importance of humility, of the power of connecting with others to improve an experience or a product. “I don’t know a thing about comedy,” he said when asked to share his expertise in the genre. “I don’t want to know. I want to be standing on the edge of the abyss. If you *know*, it becomes formulaic.”

Similarly, he shared that his failures as a director had been in not recognizing that “every actor is scared,” and the role of a director is to nurture and help them, ignoring one’s own ego. Good advice for all leaders.

Don’t just think; listen.
Speaker Mbiyimoah Ghagomu, in “Linguistic Kung-Fu: How to Disarm Weaponized Words,” spoke about the power of language to shape our behavior and our interpretation of the world. He spoke about the implications of meaning: for example, in his father’s native Cameroon, the Bambalang language’s word for “think” also means “listen.” How differently would English speakers act if we treated listening as a fundamental part of thinking, he wondered?

Unfortunately, mental-health concerns like isolation, loneliness, and lack of trust can still be discounted, devalued, or even ignored by general practitioners. However, their compound effects on patients – as well as on caregivers and healthcare professionals – can be profound. Consider how your brands are helping your audiences feel more connected to the people who can be most important to them – and how you can do more to build those connections!