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A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to speak at the Mercy Center for Innovative Care Second Annual Conference in Tulsa. The schedule featured a number of speakers heavily focused on high tech innovations in healthcare. I learned that pioneering use of the internet is making it possible for folks living in rural areas to have access to many kinds of healthcare options typically found only in large metropolitan areas. “Telehealth,” the term for web-based medicine, is focused on improving patient outcomes while lowering costs. This is made possible through the collection and transmission of vital health data that can be examined by a physician at a distant location. This enables treatment that progresses much more quickly than is possible when a patient has to make an appointment, drive to the doctor’s office, endure the waiting room experience, submit to more lab work, and finally receive a diagnosis or change in treatment regimen. When I left the conference, I had little doubt that the World Wide Web is changing healthcare in the 21st century.
Following the senior medical director from Microsoft on the program can be a pretty intimidating thing—and I do confess to feeling a bit anxious about my role at the conference. At the same time, I am aware that innovative, high tech tools cannot substitute for healthy relationships. Patients who receive diagnoses, surgeries and treatment by the most skilled physicians still heal best when they have the support of a healthy happy relationship, most often defined as marriage. Take for example the recent findings of researchers Harry Reis and Kathy King regarding the significance of healthy marriage to survival rates of those who have undergone bypass heart surgery. Their results were recently reported in the online journal, Health Psychology.
The research done by Reis and King involved tracking 225 people between 1987 and 1990. One year after their bypass surgery, patients were asked if they felt they were happily married when compared to most people. Fifteen years later, Reis and King checked on which patients were still living and which had passed away. Their results demonstrate the dramatic impact of a happy marriage has on one’s health. They found that 83 percent of happily married female patients were still alive, compared with 28 percent of women in unhappy marriages and 27 percent of unmarried women. The survival rate for happy husbands was also 83 percent, however, in contrast to the women, many men appeared to benefit from just being married—60 percent of those in less satisfying marriages were still alive, compared with 36 percent of unmarried men. It seems that the structure many women provide for their husbands, e.g., cooking meals, serving as a caregiver, are important to men even if the relationships is less fulfilling. (See http://www.democratandchronicle.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2011110180340.)
In her interview of Reis for the Democrat and Chronicle, Stephanie Veale quotes Reis as follows: "Relationship status is not a trivial variable. It's not just an 'Oh gee, it's nice if you're married; it's nice if you're happy.’ Getting relationships right is something that people ought to pay attention to, because it is significant."As we move toward a future with a great emphasis on technology, we need to remember that while web-based innovations can help us maintain our overall health and well-being, they cannot replace the human need for positive interaction. Healthy relationships are just as important today, as they have always been—perhaps even more so as our emphasis on electronic connection can result in a disconnect from the ones we love most. If we want to stay healthy and live longer, we need to pay attention to diet, exercise, health-related habits, and maintaining healthy relationships. To ignore this important aspect is to disregard a critical component of personal happiness and well-being.