Loneliness; A public health epidemic

Helen Stokes-Lampard is Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), the UK’s largest Medical Royal College, representing over 52,000 family doctors across the UK. She is a part-time GP partner at The Westgate Practice in Lichfield, Staffordshire, and was the Head of Primary Care Teaching (undergraduate) in the Medical School of the University of Birmingham until becoming RCGP Chair. She will be speaking at the Loneliness in Older People and its Impact on Health event on 13 June at Wellcome Collection in London.

As a GP in the Midlands, I see patients in my surgery day after day with a variety of different health needs. We GPs are privileged to be the cornerstone of our communities, and the vast majority – over 85% of people – come to see their GP at least once a year.

Last year, at my speech to RCGP Annual Conference, I introduced the world to my patient, Enid, a character who every GP will recognise from their own surgery and their own community. My inspiration for this character stems from the type of patient which every GP will be aware of: she’s 84, she has hypertension and type 2 diabetes, and has intermittent flares of osteoarthritis pain in both her hips. Most significantly, she recently lost Brian, her husband of 62 years.

Like many patients, this led to Enid visiting her GP more and more. During her visits, it is clear she is getting a bit forgetful, and my computer pushes me to nag her about doing more exercise, and to prescribe her more medication. But I know that Enid’s main problem is one that cannot be treated with pharmaceuticals or be referred to hospital treatment: she’s lonely.

She isn’t the only one: Loneliness has become a public health epidemic and there is evidence to suggest it is as bad for health outcomes as obesity.

All too often, GPs are the only human contact that chronically lonely patients have. Three out of four GPs say they see between 1 and 5 people a day who have come in mainly because they are lonely.

These moments of meaningful connection, which GPs offer lonely patients, matter deeply. GPs know that treating patients means listening to them and understanding their concerns; asking ‘what matters to you’, not ‘what’s the matter with you’ – focusing on the emotional and spiritual health of patients as well as their physical symptoms.

The trust that people place in me as a GP means we have a key role to play in identifying people who are chronically lonely or who are at risk of becoming lonely.

That’s why I led a discussion at the College earlier this year, with spiritual leaders, stakeholders from across the health and social care sector, and third sector organisations to help tackle some of these issues. It is what has led me to launch a Loneliness Action Plan, which outlines a series of recommendations for government and GPs.

  • We want every GP surgery to be able to access a “social prescriber”, so that people who are lonely or are at risk are supported to make the right connections.
  • To help make the right connections we want to see a quality-assured national database of voluntary sector projects and schemes to tackle loneliness, to ensure people are matched to the best schemes for their needs.
  • We promote and support social prescribing through our toolkit and our person-centred care and social prescribing training videos.
  • We need to make sure lonely people don’t get lost in the cracks of our services, so we need the NHS to develop a protocol for caring for lonely people and those at risk of becoming lonely.
  • We will engage our members in tackling loneliness by providing educational and professional development resources for GPs, meaning that people at risk of becoming lonely are identified earlier, and better supported before they become chronically lonely.
  • As this is about so much more than medicine, GPs can’t beat loneliness on their own. We need a national public health campaign to raise awareness of this issue, and encourage everyone to take action to tackle loneliness by checking on their neighbours and getting involved in their local community.

Tackling loneliness is a personal priority for me as Chair of the RCGP. As a GP I’ve seen first-hand the devastating effect it can have on people in the community; and as Chair of the RCGP I’m proud to be launching our action plan for loneliness.

Register for Loneliness in Older People and its Impact on Health event on 13 June at Wellcome Collection in London

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