Building relationships is the 'silver bullet' to tackle health inequalities

Building empathy and strong relationships with patients and colleagues across the healthcare system is the 'silver bullet' for general practice to tackle health inequalities, according to a GP expert.

Developing empathy with patients will pave the way to better self-management and health outcomes in patients from poor socio-economic backgrounds, Professor Graham Watt, a professor of general practice and primary care at Glasgow University, told the Londonwide LMCs conference this week.

Studies suggest that patients in more deprived communities tend to show less interest in shared decision making and are more likely to see doctors as less empathetic.

‘Compassion and trust’ is essential to treating these patients and helping them avoid emergency care further down the line, Professor Watt said.

Self-help and self-management are often the starting point for middle-class patients, but this is not as often the case when treating patients from poorer backgrounds, he said.

Professor Watt pointed to evidence the life expectancy of patients living in the most deprived areas in Scotland is 10 years shorter than the rest of the population, while years of unhealthy life are up to 20 years longer.

He said that GP care needs to be the strongest in areas like this, otherwise 'healthcare itself runs the risk of becoming its own determinant of health inequalities'.

But in Scotland, the most deprived 40% of the population currently receive £10 less GP funding per head per annum than those in more affluent areas. The situation is ‘the same, if not worse, in England’, he added.

Professor Watt said: ‘Can we afford equitable primary care? Given that we spend less on healthcare than any other Western European economy – of course we can. Whether we have the will is a different story.’

GPs must be empathetic to enable patients to become more engaged in their own care and improve outcomes, he added.

‘Although patients could report practitioner empathy without being enabled, they never reported enablement without practitioner empathy. So relationships are the silver bullets of general practice and primary care.’

Better integrated care between different specialties also depended on building relationships and collaborating with colleagues when treating patients, he added.

Picture: iStock

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