Are some social networks better for self-management than others? Dr Ivaylo Vassilev, Senior Research Fellow

The everyday management of a long-term condition is almost never done by individuals in isolation from others. The networks of relationships around people may include family members, friends, neighbours, colleagues, health professionals and even pets all of who play an important role in the management of long-term conditions. This is through, for example, their knowledge, support, help with accessing services, resources and valued activities.

But are some types of networks likely to provide better support for long-term condition management than other network types? Are for example networks with lots of support from family members or those where there is frequent contact with network members better for managing illness? Or is there a particular combination of network characteristics that is most likely to be optimal?

In order to answer this question we analysed survey data collected from 1682 people with type 2 diabetes in six European countries: Greece, Spain, Bulgaria, Norway, United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.

We found five network types that combined different network characteristics: restricted networks, minimal family networks, family networks, weak ties networks, and diverse networks. People with a ‘restricted’ network were the least likely to manage their condition well. These were people who had very few social network members and were likely to only be in contact with a partner and/or a live-in child. People with restricted networks were highly isolated, received limited support from members of their network, and had poor self-management skills.

It was people with a diverse network who were the most likely to manage their condition well. These were people who had many and varied types of network members (not just family, but also friends, activity groups and acquaintances) and who were in frequent contact with all of them. People whose networks were primarily constituted of family members were not managing their illness as well as those with diverse networks. This was the case even when they had many family members around and were in frequent contact with them. 

The findings from this study suggest that increased social involvement with relationships beyond the family is linked to greater self-management capacity. It is networks where there is a diversity of types of relationships that constitute the optimal network type for the management of long-term conditions.

Read Ivo’s latest paper on how people manage chronic illnesses in UK and Bulgaria

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