Social Distancing vs Physical Distancing in 2021

What does the term “social distancing” really mean? Do we really want to be socially distant? The phrase and concept of "social distance" existed before 2020, however during the past year it may have morphed permanently into a verb in its current context.  The definitions listed @ explain the difference  and make me wonder if we have been promoting social distance with  the term “Social Distancing”.  I don’t believe we are using the term correctly.  This is not what we should be encouraging ourselves to do! We can’t even hug as much as we used to so let’s not go overboard with refraining from the social interaction we all crave right now.   Branding is everything – and unfortunately, we have a term branded to mean that we should “disengage” – be socially distant – as opposed to physically distant.

Every year we add new words to the dictionary and according to coming in at #16 for 2020: Social Distance.

social distance

soh-shuhdis-tuhns ]

Sociology. the extent to which individuals or groups are removed from or excluded from participating in one another's lives.

a safe or appropriate distance or amount of space between two people or between people in a group: Security concerns demand that officers maintain a social distance from inmates. Stay at a social distance of a few feet from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.

verb (used without object) so·cial dis·tanced, so·cial dis·tanc·ing. Also so·cial-dis·tance
to maintain a safe or appropriate distance from other people, especially to slow the spread of a contagious illness or disease: Mom’s trying hard to social distance, though she misses her weekly Bingo game.

verb (used with object) so·cial dis·tanced, so·cial dis·tanc·ing. Also so·cial-dis·tance.
to place or keep at a safe or appropriate distance from other people: We’ve been exposed to the flu, so we’re social distancing ourselves from friends and extended family.

Does being socially distant and encouraging “social distance” encourage us to be emotionally distant?  Are we promoting the wrong term to get us through this pandemic? My colleague in telemedicine, Dr Sara Gibson, said it best at our recent training session for healthcare providers.  She has provided telepsychiatry consultations for adolescents in northern AZ for over 25 years and she explains:
“We have this thing called social distancing that we’re supposed to be doing. I maintain that, no, we must not social distance, we must physically distance. And we must socially connect. And we must reach out. And we must reach out however we can, and that can include telehealth, telephone, and video.”

I wholeheartedly agree with her perspective.  My heart has been broken by the constant headlines in the news that share concrete data about how suicide rates and domestic violence have increased.  The good news is that we are also hearing about how more schools and corporations now recognize that mental health days are a necessity. Behavioral health specialists and school nurses enthusiastically agree.

We need to work on our Covid vocabulary and get it right in 2021.  We need to make “Physical Distance” the new mantra for now. Let’s make it a point to encourage appropriate social interaction.  Let’s all talk about being physically distant – and our future.  I believe that the next phase out of this Covid era is a hybrid combination of learning and life in general. We will start adding more social and reducing the distance.   Small groups of us at multiple locations will happily participate in enhanced social engagement.  Producing these types of events is something that I have been doing for over 25 years and I have always believed and made it my personal goal to make videoconferencing the next best thing to being there. I do have the best job on our team! Whether the hybrid events of our future are happy hour or a great webinar on a HOT topic – I’m in!  Back to old-fashioned videoconferencing of multiple locations populated with small groups to produce some more intimate, human experiences in our lives.

Fortunately, I have the opportunity to teach what I preach at our telemedicine training events.  We ALL need to know how to communicate at a distance - no matter what our profession - but I believe it’s even more critical for healthcare professionals.   Teaching best practices for communicating and providing clinical care or education at a distance is what I do for the Arizona Telemedicine Program and Southwest Telehealth Resource Center. We host regularly scheduled trainings and webinars on a variety of telemedicine and telehealth subjects and I hope you will join us for a course or a webinar and some networking, also known as social time.

I look forward to our hybrid world of 2021 and optimistically believe that we will have the opportunity to become less socially distant.  We will narrow our physical gap based on science and data and get to work on a new year’s goal of practicing less social and more physical distancing.   I hope you will join me and celebrate this new year – a year of physical distancing when necessary and less social distancing whenever we can.  I am fortunate for now to be both comforted and nurtured by the virtual hugs I receive from friends, family and colleagues and I wish the same for you. 

Virtual Hug (hug)
To clasp tightly in the arms, especially with affection; embrace – virtually.

About the Author

Janet Major's picture

Janet Major is the Associate Director for Innovation & Digital Health for the Arizona Telemedicine Program (ATP) and the Southwest Telehealth Resource Center (SWTRC). She earned her B.S. Degree in Telecommunications from Northern Arizona University and has worked at the University of Arizona for 35 years. She has been an integral part of the Arizona Telemedicine Program since it began over 25 years ago and serves on the Executive Team. Her role includes the planning, development and installation of the teleconferencing and telemedicine equipment used in a wide variety of telemedicine locations as well as training healthcare professionals in the effective use of technology for clinical and educational applications in both LIVE interactive and store-and-forward applications

She has served as a leader for several statewide and national organizations that promote and support recruiting, training and preparing the healthcare workforce of the future. She is the past Chair for the mHealth, Technology & Distance Learning Special Interest Group of the American Telemedicine Association, was inducted into the ATA College of Fellows in March 0f 2023 and continues to serve as a leader in the telemedicine technology community. She has been active throughout her career with the network of telecommunications experts in Arizona as an Associate Board Member of ATIC: the Arizona Telecommunications and Information Council and as an active advocate for broadband in the southwest including our neighboring states. In 2018 she served on the Arizona Broadband Task Force that created our Strategic Broadband Plan for Arizona and continues to network with the current Arizona Broadband Stakeholder Network and Arizona Covid-19 Digital Access Task Force leaders. Ms. Major has also served on the Board of Directors for the United States Distance Learning Association representing the telehealth constituency and the roles of President and Chair.

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