Patient Experiences with Screening and Assistance for Social Isolation in Primary Care Settings

J Gen Intern Med. 2021 Jul;36(7):1951-1957. doi: 10.1007/s11606-020-06484-9. Epub 2021 Feb 2.


Background: Social isolation is a known predictor of mortality that disproportionately affects vulnerable populations in the USA. Although experts began to recognize it as a public health crisis prior to 2020, the novel coronavirus pandemic has accelerated recognition of social isolation as a serious threat to health and well-being.

Objective: Examine patient experiences with screening and assistance for social isolation in primary care settings, and whether patient experiences with these activities are associated with the severity of reported social isolation.

Design: Cross-sectional survey conducted in 2018.

Participants: Adults (N = 251) were recruited from 3 primary care clinics in Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Main measures: A modified version of the Berkman-Syme Social Network Index (SNI), endorsed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; items to assess for prior experiences with screening and assistance for social isolation.

Key results: In the sample population, 12.4% reported the highest levels of social isolation (SNI = 0/1), compared to 36.7%, 34.7%, and 16.3% (SNI = 2-4, respectively). Most patients had not been asked about social isolation in a healthcare setting (87.3%), despite reporting no discomfort with social isolation screening (93.9%). Neither discomfort with nor participation in prior screening for social isolation was associated with social isolation levels. Desire for assistance with social isolation (3.2%) was associated with a higher level of social isolation (AOR = 6.0, 95% CI, 1.3-28.8), as well as poor or fair health status (AOR = 9.1; 95% CI, 1.3-64.1).

Conclusions: In this study, few patients reported being screened previously for social isolation in a primary care setting, despite low levels of discomfort with screening. Providers should consider broadening social isolation screening and referral practices in healthcare settings, especially among sicker and more isolated patients who express higher levels of interest in assistance with social isolation.

Keywords: health-related social needs; social determinants of health; social isolation; social risk.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • COVID-19*
  • Chicago
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Humans
  • Patient Outcome Assessment
  • Primary Health Care
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • San Francisco
  • Social Isolation*