Loneliness 'akin to chronic medical condition', GP conference hears
GPs need more time to care for the nation's million older people who are chronically lonely, a leading doctor has said.
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, likened loneliness and social isolation to suffering a long-term physical condition.
She will tell the Royal College's annual conference in Liverpool that for many patients their "main problem" is that they are lonely.
Professor Stokes-Lampard - a practising GP in Lichfield, Staffordshire - will tell delegates: "Social isolation and loneliness are akin to a chronic long-term condition in terms of the impact they have on our patients' health and well-being.
"GPs see patients, many of whom are widowed, who have multiple health problems like diabetes, hypertension and depression, but often their main problem isn't medical, they're lonely.
"The guidelines say we should be talking to them about their weight, exercise and prescribing more medication - but really what these patients need is someone to listen to them and to find purpose in life.
"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."
The Campaign to End Loneliness says a million older people in the UK suffer from chronic loneliness.
Lonely people are more likely to suffer from medical problems such as heart disease, depression and dementia.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: "It's extremely welcome to hear the Royal College of GPs talking about the serious consequences of loneliness. Our analysis shows that about a million older people in our country are lonely, an often devastating state of profound unhappiness.
"Addressing this is a job for us all and GPs can play a vital role in helping older people who are lonely.
"Loneliness can sometime be the face of more serious underlying issues and should not be disregarded as a minor problem. GPs should be alert to any underlying mental health problems such as depression.
"GPs can further support their patients by finding out about other sources of help in the community, especially services that are experienced in working with lonely older people."
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "GPs should have the time to care for everyone which is why this government is investing an extra £2.4 billion into the sector in real-terms every year, expanding the workforce by 5,000 more doctors in general practice by 2020 and helping practices reduce their workload and free up GP time.
"NHS England is leading work to enable GPs to signpost people to carer respite, befriending and leisure activities which will help address loneliness, and we have supported organisations including the Campaign to End Loneliness and Silver Line to raise awareness of social isolation and help lonely people get support in their communities."