The Importance of Social Connection for Functional Medicine Practitioners

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Community is a critical—and often overlooked—component of a healthy, fulfilling life. As a healthcare practitioner, you’ve probably witnessed firsthand the dramatic difference that a strong support system can make for patients who are recovering from illness or injury. The healing benefits of community can be life-changing. The same is true for each of us on a personal and professional level: having a supportive network of like-minded people can make an enormous difference in our day-to-day satisfaction and happiness. Find out why social connections are so important for doctors and learn how to cultivate your own network.

Humans are social creatures. We lived in tight-knit groups for much of our existence, in close and constant contact with members of our community, working together to perform tasks and solve problems, and relying on one another to survive. In our modern era, we still do best when we feel connected. In fact, we thrive. That’s true in our personal lives, but it also applies to our professional lives as practitioners.

When we feel connected, our stress levels are lower, our health is better, and we’re more engaged in our work. We’re better able to serve our passion for helping people and are less likely to feel burned out. Supportive relationships matter. If you want to cultivate meaningful professional relationships and find your community in the healthcare professions, particularly in Functional Medicine, read on.

Social support from our peers and colleagues can lead to a more enriching, fulfilling, and successful career in Functional Medicine. Find out how to build your network. #functionalmedicine #unconventionalmedicine #kresserinstitute

Why We All Need Strong Social Connections

Forging strong relationships is crucial for your health. Social connections don’t just feel good—they’re medicine, and you’ll find plenty of research to back up the benefits.

Having strong social support, one landmark study of 30,000 participants found, is a better predictor of survival than: (1)

  • Physical activity
  • Air pollution
  • Smoking

In fact, socially isolated people have a higher risk of chronic illness and death, even after controlling for factors like overall physical health, alcohol consumption, and smoking. (2) By contrast, a strong social network increases longevity and improves endocrine, immune, cardiovascular, and mental health. (3)

Why are social connections so important for our health? While the exact mechanism is unknown, living in connection with others resembles the way our hunter–gatherer ancestors would’ve lived. We evolved in an environment where we maintained close contact with each other. Our ancestors thrived in tight-knit tribal groups and spent their days and nights together, working to find food and shelter, raising children who’d ensure survival of the group, weathering stressful events they could not control, and simply relaxing together. They benefited from those connections, supporting each other through brief moments of danger and stress and during longer periods of socialization and rest. That balance between fight or flight and rest and digest likely allowed them to manage their stress levels and enjoy better health because of it.

The Benefits of Strong Professional Connections

A lack of professional relationships can have a negative impact on your productivity, your sense of job satisfaction, and your engagement in your work. Fortunately, we know from research that the reverse is true. Strong workplace relationships can benefit not only you, but the people you come into contact with. When you work in healthcare, that translates into happier colleagues and a more engaged workforce—and, in turn, a positive, thoughtful environment that will improve the quality of care that your patients will receive. (4, 5)

A strong professional network allows you to:

  • Connect and communicate more effectively with your coworkers
  • Offer better, more streamlined care to your patients
  • Learn about new skills, techniques, or approaches
  • Build a referral network that connects you with practitioners, health coaches, or other allied providers outside of your practice
  • Grow your practice
  • Get perspective on your day-to-day work
  • Share your passion for helping people
Ultimately, a strong network improves your professional satisfaction, which allows you to avoid burnout and offer better care for your patients.

Why Social Connections are Important for Doctors: They Help Prevent Professional Burnout

Given the long hours and high-stress situations that can come with being a healthcare provider, it should come as no surprise that burnout is common in the profession. Though burnout can affect workers across a range of careers, people in the helping professions—especially practitioners—are particularly at risk for those telltale feelings of exhaustion, detachment, and ineffectiveness that characterize the problem. In fact, more than half of doctors say they’ve felt burned out (some reports put that number higher, at 70 to 80 percent). (6, 7)

There are several reasons that physician burnout is so common: (8, 9)

  • Doctors spend less than one-third of their time working face-to-face with their patients.
  • They spend hours staring at computer screens, inputting patient data or completing required reports, answering emails, and filling out non-clinical paperwork that bites into time that would be better spent talking to patients.
  • If a physician is part of a large for-profit medical group or hospital corporation, there is more pressure to see more patients (and bill for more services).
  • Appointment times are notoriously short, and physicians often spend fewer than 15 minutes talking with each patient.
  • They’re often forced to spend hours of personal time at home catching up on their work.
  • On top of it all, most of today’s doctors are frustrated by the restrictions of a complex and broken health insurance system, one that often gets in the way of patient care.

It comes down to this: under the conventional healthcare system, it’s difficult to find the time to truly heal your patients. As practitioners, we got into this profession because we have a passion for helping people (not because we have a passion for paperwork). If feelings of burnout and stress aren’t addressed, they can lead to: (10, 11, 12, 13)

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Chronic illnesses
  • Less mental resilience, or ability to handle stressful situations in the future

High levels of stress and burnout could be to blame for the particularly high rates of substance abuse, depression, and suicide among physicians. (14, 15, 16) This is a sad and dangerous situation, but not only for the people working in medicine: stress and burnout can potentially lead to medical mistakes, which can have life-altering and even fatal consequences for patients. (17) That’s all the more reason for practitioners to find a healthy way to reduce stress and feel more invigorated by and connected to their work. 

How to Find Your Community in Functional Medicine

Working in healthcare can feel professionally isolating, largely because practitioners often spend the majority of their day working with patients instead of interacting with their colleagues. While that’s a reality of the job, it can lead to a sense of loneliness, increased stress, and, eventually, burnout, a phenomenon that is quite common in conventional medicine. In fact, one of the many reasons I believe so strongly in Functional Medicine is that it offers practitioners better built-in support because there are so many opportunities for professional collaboration.

That said, loneliness and isolation can affect many Functional Medicine practitioners, as well. Without a community of other like-minded practitioners and allied health providers, it can feel a bit like you’re in the fight alone without any support, especially if you work in an area or region where there seem to be few other practitioners who share your philosophy.

Creating your own community is the antidote for those feelings of isolation. Here are the ways I’ve built mine throughout my career.

Get Together with Your Colleagues

As practitioners, many of us interact almost exclusively with our patients rather than our coworkers or peer group. While those interactions are fulfilling in their own right, playing the role of a clinician doesn’t allow for the type of deep connection that we all need as humans. And, given our culture’s near-constant state of busyness, it can be challenging to find the time to forge those connections at work with colleagues.

That’s why I recommend setting aside time to get together with your coworkers and share a group experience. Work retreats are perfect for that purpose. 

Work retreats give you and your team an opportunity to connect deeply with each other; to talk about the issues that you’re facing in your professional lives and solve problems in a more informal setting. Approach your employer about organizing a retreat, or better yet, if you’re the boss, get one on the calendar. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, far-flung, or lengthy, though it’s nice to do an overnight event and really get away.

I’ve participated in meditation retreats for around 25 years, and I’m a big believer in their transformative power. If you can’t find time to schedule a work retreat, just making an effort to get together with your coworkers outside of the workplace for a regular dinner—or even a Sunday picnic, potluck, or softball game, where coworkers can bring family—can help you feel more connected and, ultimately, more fulfilled.

Attend Events That Align with Your Interests

Every time I attend an event in the Paleo community or Functional Medicine space, I come away with a renewed sense of invigoration and commitment to my work. The energy is always positive, happy, eager, and uplifting—and I get a chance to build my community.

Professional development events, conferences, and gatherings give you the opportunity to meet new people, talk with them, and learn from their experiences while sharing your own. They connect you with others who share the same passion and caregiving mission that drives you, and these events are great opportunities to set aside your day-to-day distractions and really sink into the things you love best.

Make time to attend events sponsored by professional organizations you belong to or those that fit in with your interests. It may seem difficult to find time in your calendar, especially if travel is involved, but it’s well worth it to put in the effort.

Join a Mastermind Group

Mastermind groups are peer-to-peer mentoring organizations with regularly scheduled meetings (either in person or online). They allow members to benefit from the combined intelligence and accrued experience of everyone in the group, whether each member works in the same field or fields that overlap in some way, or members have careers that span a wide variety of industries and professions.

These groups offer you the chance to connect with others on a regular basis via a non-hierarchical professional mentorship model—meaning everyone stands on equal footing; there are no senior members and junior members. This kind of group dynamic has been shown to be quite valuable for those who want to advance their careers. (18) Mastermind groups can be zero-cost or require a fee to participate. If you can’t find a group that fits your needs, you can always start your own!

If You’re a Conventional Practitioner, Consider Moving into Functional Medicine

If you’ve spent time working within the conventional healthcare system, you’re familiar with its flaws and the serious challenges it presents, both to patients and practitioners. Professional burnout often results in inadequate care for those who need it most, especially patients with chronic diseases. If you’re a practitioner and you’ve experienced the feelings of isolation and frustration I described, I urge you to consider becoming a Functional Medicine practitioner.

In conventional healthcare, practitioners focus on suppressing symptoms (often with medication). In Functional Medicine, our focus is on uncovering the root causes of poor health and chronic disease so we can address those and help patients truly recover and heal. I can’t emphasize enough how satisfying and fulfilling it is to watch a patient thrive after addressing the underlying source of their health problems.

Aside from offering a greater sense of satisfaction in your work, Functional Medicine has another draw: it’s based on a collaborative model of care. Under the collaborative model, practitioners like you work side by side with nutritionists, health coaches, and other allied care providers to ensure that each patient feels supported. This not only improves the quality of care and streamlines the process for patients; it allows you to partner with other professionals who share your passion and dedication to the work. That means a better working environment for you, more professional satisfaction, and more opportunities to connect with your community. If you’re interested in collaborating with passionate professionals in the fight against chronic disease, consider joining the Functional Medicine movement. We would love to have you!

The chronic disease epidemic is spreading, but people like you can turn the tide. In the ADAPT Practitioner Training Program, we teach you how to prevent and reverse chronic disease by addressing the root cause of the illness. Our yearlong virtual course is built on a Functional Medicine foundation that emphasizes a patient-centered, holistic approach to care, coupled with an ancestral health perspective. We also teach you the skills you need to incorporate what you learn into your existing practice and better manage your day-to-day work. Our program is interactive and will link you up with a supportive network of faculty members, peers, and health coaches trained in the ADAPT model who share your vision for the future of healthcare.

Want to learn more? Click here to find out more about the ADAPT Practitioner Training Program and join our community.