National campaign needed to tackle loneliness 'epidemic', says RCGP

Publication date: 23 May 2018

A national public campaign is needed to raise awareness of loneliness and social isolation across society, and encourage everyone to get involved in combatting this 'public health epidemic', according to the Royal College of General Practitioners' (RCGP) new manifesto, launched today, which will seek to influence the Government’s approach to tackling loneliness.

The call is one of several in Tackling Loneliness: A Community Action Plan, which argues that a widespread campaign is essential to educating the public, and should also encourage people to talk to their neighbours and get involved in, or start local initiatives in a bid to build and strengthen social connections throughout communities.

The action plan has come out of the College's first-ever roundtable on loneliness; an event which saw charities, and community, voluntary and faith organisations come together to discuss how communities, including GPs, can tackle loneliness and social isolation in society.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: "Moments of meaningful connection really do matter, but for some people, they are elusive – for some, they might only get these when they see their GP.

"A national-level campaign to make people aware of how big a problem loneliness is, and the very real adverse impact it can have on people's health and wellbeing, could help to break down some of the barriers that are keeping lonely people lonely.

"It can be really tough when you've lost someone you spent a significant amount of time with, or when you leave home for the first time, or relocate to a new city where you don't know anyone, to take the plunge and get out and meet new people. We'd like to see a campaign launched that reduces any stigma associated with loneliness, and makes it easier for people to make social connections.

"Loneliness is not a medical condition, but it can affect our patients' health – some research studies estimate more so than obesity. It can also have a real impact on workload pressures in general practice and the wider NHS, at a time when the whole system is facing intense resource and workforce challenges.

"GPs are at the forefront of patient care, at the heart of communities, and we see many people whose underlying problem isn't medical, in our surgeries every day. But tackling loneliness, and helping patients who might be at risk of becoming lonely through social isolation, cannot all come down to GPs and our teams. We need a society-wide approach to address this growing epidemic."

The Action Plan is also calling for every GP practice to have access to a funded 'social prescriber' to help patients find the most appropriate support – and for quality-assured, local-level databases of voluntary sector projects and schemes to be established, to refer patients on to, and make sure lonely people are made aware of the range schemes that may best suit them.

Professional development resources for GPs to help identify people at risk of loneliness earlier have been proposed too, as has an NHS-wide protocol for caring for lonely people.

Professor Stokes-Lampard continued: "In my conference speech last year, I talked about Enid, my 80-something, recently widowed patient, who had some health problems – but the underlying reason why she started visiting the GP more often was because she was lonely.

"I was able to link Enid with a great social prescribing scheme and encourage her to get involved with a community initiative which meant her health problems diminished and she was happier – but there are many people out there who haven't been reached.

"The UK is leading the way in appointing a Minister for Loneliness, and the government is embarking on a cross-department strategy to tackle loneliness and social isolation.

"We hope this Action Plan [PDF] – informed by experts across health, community and voluntary sectors - outlining what we think needs to happen, will form a constructive part of that conversation and ensure that responsibility doesn’t disproportionately fall to one particular sector, but society as a whole."

Further Information

RCGP Press office: 020 3188 7633/7574/7575
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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