Loneliness can be as bad for health as a long-term illness

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Image: Getty
Image: Getty

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), is worried about the impact of social isolation on individual patients and its impact on the entire health system.

Accordingly, she is campaigning for the U.K. government to give GPs "time to care" as loneliness can be akin to a chronic long-term condition in terms of the impact they have on patients' wellbeing.

"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," Professor Stokes-Lampard said. "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."

An estimated 1.1 million people over the age of 65 are chronically lonely in Britain, and 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.

"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," Professor Stokes-Lampard added. "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."

In addition to addressing the topic of loneliness at the Annual Primary Care Conference in Liverpool on Thursday (12Oct17), she will also speak about the intense workload and workforce issues facing general practice that are leading to GP burnout, practice closures and ask why fewer medical students choosing the profession.

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