What is the Impact of Loneliness on General Practice?

Loneliness is a feeling that is familiar to many people, in a number of different circumstances. However, for an increasing number of people in the UK, loneliness is not just a fleeting emotion, it is a constant source of unhappiness and isolation.

Thousands of elderly people across the UK are suffering from what practitioners are beginning to call ‘chronic loneliness’. This ‘loneliness epidemic’ is preventing older people from accessing the support networks they need, and is now putting pressure on GP surgeries, too.

What is the ‘loneliness epidemic’?

The Campaign to End Loneliness is a national project aimed at reconnecting older members of communities. It claims that around 1.1 million people over the age of 65 are chronically lonely in the UK, and that this is taking a serious toll on their mental and physical health. They explain:

“Lonely people are more likely to develop heart disease, depression and dementia. Lonely people also have a 50 per cent increased risk of early death compared to those with good social connections – making it a comparable risk factor for early mortality to obesity.”

Whilst chronic loneliness is not a phenomenon unique to the older generation, it does appear to be increasingly common within this particular demographic. However, instead of community social services, lonely elderly people appear to be heading to GP surgeries in search of a remedy. Elderly people are booking appointments with doctors because they are lonely and have no one else to talk to.

The impact of loneliness on GP services

Loneliness is not only a problem for patients, but for GP surgeries too. As Professor Stokes-Lampard comments ,

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

With more people booking GP appointments simply to counter their loneliness, GPs have less time to spend on medical consultation. According to Stokes-Lampard, “if nothing is done, loneliness will, inevitably, take its toll on the entire healthcare system.”

But, of course, these patients do need support. The RCGP has recently called the current 10-minute appointment system “increasingly unfit for purpose”, as it does not allow for detailed conversations that would be necessary to explain complex health matters – or social issues such a chronic loneliness.

Solutions to loneliness

With various healthcare bodies having acknowledged the ramifications of a general practice unprepared to cope with chronically lonely patients, new measures are currently being considered. The RCGP has launched a UK-wide campaign to tackle the ‘epidemic of loneliness’ and social isolation, after they conducted a survey finding that 75 per cent of GPs see between one and five patients per day whose main reason for consultation is loneliness.

As a response, the college is advocating for every GP to have access to a social prescriber to help patients make connections to prevent them becoming isolated and lonely. They estimate that loneliness increases the risk of early death by 50%, and suggest that those who see their GP about loneliness are less likely to be part of this statistic.

Other organisations are also working to target and reduce loneliness in the UK. The Big Lottery Fund plans to spend over £3 million on a similar project aimed at reducing pressure on GPs by delivering a “social prescribing” service across Northern Ireland and Scotland. Through this scheme, GPs can refer patients to the social prescriber, who will contact them to discuss what they need and refer them to relevant community activities and outreach programmes.

In terms of GPs’ roles in reducing chronic loneliness, the suggestions from Professor Stokes-Lampard are simple:

“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.”

To find out more about how you could support elderly people as an out of hours GP, contact us today on 03000 243 333.