For a long time, healthcare has been focused on reacting to symptoms. When people notice something feeling different, or are having trouble that isn’t going away, they — correctly — see their doctor. They may come away with a prescription for medication or referral for a procedure.

But how much of our physical and mental health is affected by how we live? How can we change the way we approach healthcare so that we can avoid problems that require medical treatment?

Michael Jefferson MD

How we treat our bodies and how our bodies treat us is all connected, but what has become clearer is how our ability to live a healthy life is influenced by what we call Social Drivers of Health (SDoH).

Consider the impacts, for instance, of living in a food desert with limited access to affordable, nutritious food; or feeling lonely, where the connection to a community that is essential to psychological well-being and cognitive strength is literally out of reach. Critically, SDoH disproportionately affects communities of color, the poor, and other marginalized communities – impacting their ability to lead a healthy lifestyle.

What this all means is we need to begin to take a broader view of health. Non-medical factors like geography, personal finances, access to food and transportation, and social isolation affect up to 80 percent of our physical and mental health.

This starts, in part, by realizing the power of human connection. Loneliness contributes enormously to a person’s ability to maintain good health — physical, behavioral, and social. Through compassion, companionship, and care, we can understand what individuals need and help people improve their health and vitality.

One way Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield (Anthem) in Connecticut helps the people we serve is through our partnership with Papa, a a curated platform of companionship and support for older adults, families, and other vulnerable populations.

Many members of Anthem’s 2022 Medicare Advantage plans will provide access to Papa’s service. By using technology to match older adults with vetted and trained companions, called “Papa Pals,” Papa meets needs that promote one’s health, but are non-medical in nature — ranging from technology assistance, meal preparation, light housework, transportation, and, of course, social interaction.

Ultimately, this helps us to uncover needs and address them. Nearly half of people who use Papa’s services report feeling healthier – physically and mentally. And, 68 percent of those who were lonely said they experienced less loneliness compared to before they used Papa’s services.

Anthem also gives members access to Member Connect, a program that helps address factors that contribute to senior loneliness and isolation. The program has three goals for participants: help them re-engage in their healthcare, connect them with community-based organizations, and increase their physical activity.

Finally, we encourage all of our members to choose a primary care physician. This type of relationship is an extremely important connection. Studies have shown that people who have a relationship with a trusted primary care provider are more likely to receive evidence-based care, have higher satisfaction with the healthcare system and are less likely to need care at an emergency room or through an acute hospital admission. A trusted physician can help members navigate the healthcare system, looking at their health more holistically.

Everyone is affected by social drivers of health, which means we must take a whole-person approach to health and healthcare. There has been good progress made, but there is much more we can do. Sites like are useful resources to stimulate thinking about SDoH in your own life and for the people in your community. We must continue to take a broader view of health and create programs and partnerships that put people at the center.

Dr. Michael Jefferson is Managing Medical Director, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Connecticut.