Dr Anne Hayden, a GP in West Moors in Dorset, pioneered the befriending service with the volunteering charity WRVS.
Over 18 months, her work has led to savings of more than £80,000 through reducing unnecessary GP and emergency hospital appointments for six patients who were high users of NHS services. Reduced NHS use by just one patient cut NHS spending by £18,000.
Dr Hayden has many patients for whom anxiety causes 'symptoms of illness that really didn't exist' and this led her to recognise the need to improve emotional well-being.
Dr Anne Hayden
'I realised that if you could build the self-esteem and confidence of a person, you could improve not only their mental health, but also their physical health and in turn, their general quality of life,' she said.
Dr Hayden initially sought the support of a local group, providing patients with nine hours of befriending support a week.
She then helped to launch a 'phone a friend' service, which, with WRVS support, developed into an outreach service.
WRVS is now urging other GPs to identify elderly patients who need support with emotional well-being and to refer these patients to local community support services.
Research by the charity suggests that one in 10 elderly people believed that lack of time in consultations meant their loneliness or isolation was not recognised by their GP.
WRVS chief executive David McCullough said: 'It's to the benefit of not only the patient, but also the NHS as a whole, that GPs spot the early warning signs of isolation and loneliness and refer patients to services such as befriending or community centres.'
Dr Hayden added: 'It is inevitable that in the short time a GP has to see each patient, they prioritise the immediate medical concern. This should not be at the expense of wider well-being issues, which in the past may have taken a back seat.'