GPs have key role in reversing widening health inequalities in young people

GPs should be proactive in supporting young patients to access services to counter widening health inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic, experts have warned.

Dr Steph Lamb from the RCGP Adolescent Health Group
Dr Steph Lamb from the RCGP Adolescent Health Group

During a session at the RCGP annual conference 2021 in Liverpool, GPs were encouraged to take steps to ensure that young people could book online consultations and were able to attend appointments alone if they had health needs.

Dr Steph Lamb, who is part of the RCGP Adolescent Health Group, admitted that the ‘collateral damage’ of the pandemic on those aged 10-24 has been ‘disproportionate’, with disadvantaged young people most likely to suffer.

It follows a letter from a group of GPs last October who warned of a ‘myriad’ of long-term health issues for young people and others as a result of ongoing social restrictions.

Adolescent health

Delegates heard that obesity and exercise rates, as well as sleeping patterns had all been negatively affected by the pandemic; all of which factor into the overall health of young people. It was also noted that the digital divide had been exacerbated during the last two years - affecting children’s education and access to healthcare services.

Dr Lamb said it was particularly important that GPs made themselves accessible to young people suffering with mental health issues since the lockdown. She said: ‘We have a duty of care to be accessible to our young people, because unless they can see us, or unless they can at least talk to us, then we're not going to know and we're not going to be positioned to help them.

‘With mental health, we know that if you are in a position to make an early intervention, you can affect that life course - there is really strong evidence that, if you pick them up and support and get the right treatment early enough, you could potentially prevent a life course of significant mental health problems.’

A survey in January last year revealed that more than half of 11- to 18-year-old patients referred to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) by their GP are rejected for treatment.

Online consultations

Dr Emma Park, a GP trainer and member of the RCGP’s Adolescent Clinical Interest Group, told GPs that they could make changes on an individual and practice level to ensure young people were not left behind as a consequence of pressures created by the pandemic.

On a personal level, she encouraged family doctors to be ‘warm’ towards adolescents they consult with, and to use a HEADSS framework when treating adolescents. This includes asking young people about their home life, education (school), activities/employment, drugs, suicidality, and sex.

She also asked family doctors to think about how adolescents were able to access health services at their practices. Dr Park said: ‘So at a practice level, can your under-18s book appointments?

She said some systems used in GP practices did not allow under-16s to book their own appointments. 'If that's your only means of access to appointments at your surgery, you're failing young people from the get-go,’ she warned.

Read more from the RCGP annual conference

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