GPs urged to identify patients at risk of winter death

GPs should identify vulnerable patients at risk from cold or difficult-to-heat homes and refer them to local health and housing services to reduce preventable deaths, according to NICE draft guidance.

Winter risk: GPs urged to identify patients at risk in cold weather (Photo: iStock)
Winter risk: GPs urged to identify patients at risk in cold weather (Photo: iStock)

NICE draft guidance on Excess winter deaths and morbidity, set to be published this winter, recommends that GPs should ‘make every contact count’ and assess the heating needs of at-risk patients during appointments and home visits.

Concerns should be added to patient records and made available to other healthcare professionals, the guidance says.

In cases where a cold home is deemed a significant risk, the guidance says healthcare professionals should ‘take action’. This may include referral to local health and housing services or offering health-based solutions such as flu vaccinations.

Potential reluctance from patients about admitting they cannot afford to pay for heating means GPs need to be vigilant, NICE warns, and emphasise the potential health risks associated with living in a cold home.

NICE advice highlights patients with chronic cardiovascular, respiratory and mental health conditions as being at particular risk, as well as those over 65, below school age, pregnant or in low-income households.

Professor Mike Kelly, director of the centre for public health at NICE, said: ‘Although most causes of death and illness vary throughout the seasons, there is a clear increase during winter months. This is not just about extreme cold weather, but normal winter temperatures – when outdoor temperatures drop below 6°C. People need to be aware of how the cold affects their health and where they can seek help if they need it.’

Living in a cold or difficult-to-heat home significantly increases the risk of death and morbidity, especially during winter months. Around 24,000 more people die in England and Wales between December and March than at other periods in the year.

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