Loneliness can be as bad for health as a chronic long-term condition, says GP leader

Publication date: 12 October 2017

Loneliness and social isolation, particularly for older people, can be on a par with suffering from a chronic long-term condition, the UK’s top GP will tell a conference of 2,000 health professionals in Liverpool.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, spoke about the older patients who are seeing their GP because they are lonely and want human contact or someone to talk to.

In her opening speech to the College's Annual Primary Care Conference – her first as Chair - Professor Stokes-Lampard looked at the impact of social isolation on individual patients and its inevitable toll on the entire NHS.

She called on the four governments of the UK to cut red tape and tick boxes in order to give GPs 'time to care'.

Using the example of one of her patients, 'Enid', Professor Stokes-Lampard - a practising GP in Lichfield, Staffordshire - said: "Social isolation and loneliness are akin to a chronic long-term condition in terms of the impact they have on our patients' health and wellbeing.

"GPs see patients, many of whom are widowed, who have multiple health problems like diabetes, hypertension and depression, but often their main problem isn't medical, they're lonely.

"The guidelines say we should be talking to them about their weight, exercise and prescribing more medication - but really what these patients need is someone to listen to them and to find purpose in life.

"GPs need the time to care – don't make us spend it ticking boxes, preparing for inspections, or worrying that we haven't followed guidelines for fear of repercussions.

"Trust us to be doctors so that we can treat our patients like human beings and tailor their treatment to their needs."

According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, an estimated 1.1million people over the age of 65 are chronically lonely in the UK, and lonely people are more likely to develop heart disease, depression and dementia.

Lonely people also have a 50% increased risk of early death compared to those with good social connections – making it a comparable risk factor for early mortality to obesity.

Professor Stokes-Lampard said: “Loneliness and social isolation are not the exclusive preserve of the elderly. They are not something that can be treated with pharmaceuticals or that can be referred for hospital treatment. But they must be addressed if we are to be patient-centred in our approach.

"Research has shown that lonely people consult their GP more often, and in many cases their GP was the professional they would come into contact with most frequently. 

"If nothing is done, loneliness will, inevitably, take its toll on the entire healthcare system."

Professor Stokes-Lampard spoke about the intense workload and workforce issues facing general practice that are leading to GP burnout, practice closures and fewer medical students choosing the profession.

Workload in general practice has risen 16% over the last seven years yet investment has declined and workforce has not increased in pace with demand.

Professor Stokes-Lampard concluded her speech by calling on the four governments of the UK for the time, the resources, and 'the freedom' - to do what is right for patients.

"As GPs we cannot fix all of society's problems – but we do get to see them and feel them – and we need to recognise their impact on health and have strategies to help our patients whilst protecting time to be doctors. 

"We need the £2.4bn a year extra for general practice - promised in NHS England's GP Forward View - delivered in England, in full. And we need equivalent settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and we need them fast.

"Give us the appropriate numbers of GPs, and members of the wider healthcare team, to ensure we can do our jobs safely, for the benefit of our patients and our own wellbeing.

"Give us the time, the resources and the freedom to deliver the care our patients need. To innovate in their best interests. To act in their best interests. To allow us to deliver Enid-shaped care to Enid – and indeed personalised care to every one of our patients."

Further Information

RCGP Press office: 020 3188 7574/7575/7410
Out of hours: 0203 188 7659

Notes to editor

The Royal College of General Practitioners is a network of more than 52,000 family doctors working to improve care for patients. We work to encourage and maintain the highest standards of general medical practice and act as the voice of GPs on education, training, research and clinical standards.

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