Family doctors ill-equipped for loneliness epidemic

New research has found significant numbers of lonely people attending GP surgeries, with doctors saying they are ill-equipped to help them.

A new poll of UK GPs, carried out for the Campaign to End Loneliness, found that three quarters of family doctors (76 per cent) report that between one and five patients a day attend their surgery primarily because they are lonely [1]. This could mean that as many as one in 10 patients arriving at GPs surgeries are there not because they are medically unwell, but because they are lonely [2].

Worryingly, almost half (49 per cent) of the doctors questioned said they were not confident they had the tools necessary to help their lonely patients, with only 13 per cent of doctors confident in being able to help.

Some doctors reported even greater levels of loneliness among their patients, with 11 per cent of family doctors reporting up to 10 patients a day who they think are lonely, and four per cent of doctors seeing more than 10 lonely patients on an average day.

Kate Jopling, Director for the Campaign to End Loneliness, says: “Far too many people are feeling so lonely, and so at a loss about what to do about it, that they end up going to see their doctor. It’s time we committed to a more coordinated public health response that targets resources towards better support for lonely people, and prevention of loneliness for those at risk.

“I know that many doctors will feel frustrated at not being able to help their patients but there are things they can do. There are many schemes, both public and voluntary, that can help lonely older people and the first step for doctors should be to signpost these to patients.”

Almost three million people over 65 say they are lonely. About a fifth of older people say they are sometimes lonely, and between six and 13 per cent say they are always lonely [3].

Loneliness and isolation is associated with poor mental, physical and emotional health, including increased rates of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cognitive decline and dementia. Socially isolated and lonely adults are more likely to undergo early admission into residential or nursing care.

The Campaign to End Loneliness has been working with local authorities to help them better track and support lonely older people. Critical to this effort is getting loneliness recognised as a public health issue by local health and wellbeing boards so that the best support can reach those who need it.

Kate Jopling concluded: “Loneliness is putting an unnecessary strain on local GP surgeries and social care services. Only half of the newly empowered local health and wellbeing boards have acknowledged loneliness in their strategies. This needs to increase if we are to help lonely older people and ultimately improve health outcomes in later life.”