Loneliness 'as bad as long-term conditions' for health, RCGP chair warns

Chronic loneliness can be as bad for health as long-term conditions, especially for older patients, RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard warned in her opening speech at the college's annual conference.

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard (Photo: Pete Hill)

In her first conference speech as chair of the RCGP, Professor Stokes-Lampard highlighted the impact of social isolation on patients – particularly on older people who book appointments to see their GP in high numbers because they are lonely and want someone to talk to.

The speech, framed around one of her elderly patients called ‘Enid’, was delivered to delegates at the RCGP annual conference in Liverpool on Thursday morning.

She called on the four governments of the UK to increase funding for general practice in order to give GPs ‘time to care’.

An estimated 1.1m people over the age of 65 in the UK are chronically lonely, according to the Campaign to End Loneliness – which puts them at greater risk of developing conditions such as heart disease, depression and dementia.

They also have a 50% increased risk of early death compared with those who have good social connections – making it a comparable risk factor for early mortality to obesity.

Social isolation

Professor Stokes-Lampard said: ‘Social isolation and loneliness are akin to a chronic long-term condition in terms of the impact they have on our patients’ health and wellbeing.

'They are not medical conditions. They are not something that can be treated with pharmaceuticals or that can be referred for further treatment in secondary care. But they must be addressed if we are to be patient-centred in our approach.'

She added: ‘GPs need the time to care – don’t make us spend it ticking boxes, preparing for inspections, or worrying that we haven’t followed guidelines for fear of repercussions.

‘Trust us to be doctors so that we can treat our patients like human beings and tailor their treatment to their needs.’

RCGP conference

Professor Stokes-Lampard went on to say: ‘Loneliness and social isolation are not the exclusive preserve of the elderly. They are not something that can be treated with pharmaceuticals or that can be referred for hospital treatment. But they must be addressed if we are to be patient-centred in our approach.

‘Research has shown that lonely people consult their GP more often, and in many cases their GP was the professional they would come into contact with most frequently.

‘If nothing is done, loneliness will, inevitably, take its toll on the entire healthcare system.’

Professor Stokes-Lampard also spoke about the intense workload and workforce issues facing general practice, causing GP burnout, practice closures and fewer medical students choosing the profession.

Workload in general practice has risen 16% over the last seven years – accompanied by falling investment and workforce not increasing at the same pace.

GP Forward View

She concluded the speech by calling on the UK governments to grant GPs the time, resources and ‘the freedom’ to do what is right for patients.

‘As GPs we cannot fix all of society’s problems – but we do get to see them and feel them – and we need to recognise their impact on health and have strategies to help our patients whilst protecting time to be doctors,’ she said.

'If we attempt to fix everything we will burn out - in many cases at the moment we are burning out.

‘This is why we need the £2.4bn a year extra for general practice – promised in the GP Forward View – delivered in England, in full. And we need equivalent settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and we need them fast.

‘To boost our workforce. To give us the appropriate numbers of GPs, and members of the wider healthcare team, to ensure we can do our jobs safely, for the benefit of our patients and our own wellbeing.'

Full coverage of the RCGP annual conference 2017

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