GPs should be able to refer patients to knitting groups to combat loneliness

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Family doctors should be able to access a Wikipedia-style information page so they can refer patients to social activities to help combat loneliness, a leading doctor has said.

Meanwhile, there should be a national public campaign highlighting the issue which affects millions of Britons, according to the Royal College of GPs.

Loneliness is as bad for someone’s health as obesity, said college chairwoman professor Helen Stokes-Lampard.

Official statistics show that one in every 20 (5%) English adults feels lonely “often” or “always”.

An additional 16% said they felt lonely “some of the time”, and almost a quarter said they felt lonely “occasionally”, according to Office for National Statistics data.

In an interview with the Press Association, professor Stokes-Lampard said: “Loneliness is bad for your health. It’s as bad for your health as being significantly overweight or obese.

“Lonely people see their GP more because they have other health problems, but sometimes their GP is the only person they speak to, that’s why GPs are interested in loneliness.

“I’m not suggesting GPs can cure loneliness – we need to be there to be people’s doctors and have other people to sort out the loneliness so we can focus on disease.”

Previous research has suggested that every day a GP will see between one and five patients who are lonely.

Professor Stokes-Lampard continued: “From a GP’s point of view, once they’ve identified there is an issue, we need to send somebody somewhere for this to be tackled and their particular needs to be identified. This can be done through social prescribing.”

Social prescribing occurs when GPs can send patients to other, non clinical, services in the community.

“(This) is something that good GPs have always done, which is to know what is there in the community that can help this particular person, whether that’s charities, community groups, local council agencies, religious groups,” she added.

“There are some fantastic initiatives already but we want this much more widely.

“For some people what they’ll need is a hand with debt counselling, for other people it will be a disease-specific charity – like a Parkinson’s charity – for others it will be purely social stuff like ‘Knit and Natter’ or Contact the Elderly or Silverline.

“For social prescribing we need access to up-to-date databases of what is out there.

“But this is patchy around the country, sometimes local councils run them, sometimes the NHS runs them but we need some sort of standardised way of doing it that is kept up to date.

“I propose a Wiki-style approach to doing it where organisations themselves contribute to the database – but it would need to be quality-assured.”

“In this day and age, it should not be beyond the wit of man for us to do this.”

She added that there needs to be a high profile awareness campaign to highlight the issue.

“We could do it as a public health campaign – we do things when there is a cold snap and we encourage people to check on the elderly or for flu vaccinations campaigns.

“A public health campaign about empowering people to help one another.”

Professor Stokes-Lampard added: “Society is on the one hand very connected via social media, but we are probably less connected physically than we used to be.

“We have used the phrase ‘moments of meaningful connection’ – which is something we have picked up from the Campaign to End Loneliness – it’s not just about saying ‘hi’, it’s about connecting with somebody beyond the superficial.”

The comments come as the RCGP launched a new manifesto which will seek to influence the government’s approach to tackling loneliness.

The manifesto, Tackling Loneliness: A Community Action Plan, calls for a widespread campaign to educate the public and to encourage people to help their neighbours and strengthen social connections throughout communities.

The calls comes after the College met with charities, community, voluntary and faith organisations to discuss how to tackle the loneliness epidemic sweeping Britain.

The document also states that there should be professional development resources for GPs to help identify people at risk of loneliness earlier and an NHS-wide protocol for caring for lonely people.

Commenting on the manifesto, Izzi Seccombe, chairwoman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, said: “Loneliness is a serious public health concern which studies suggest can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“The potential of social prescribing to tackle loneliness is immense and is an idea whose time has come.

“By connecting people with local community services and activities we can improve the health and wellbeing of large numbers of people.

“Councils have various schemes and initiatives in place to tackle loneliness and work closely with voluntary organisations and faith groups to support vulnerable people in the community.

“But councils can only do so much. There needs to be greater public awareness of loneliness as a serious illness.

“We all need to be on the look-out for each other, such as checking on a neighbour, who could be a young mum without any family nearby, or an older person living alone.

“This could make a major difference and help tackle loneliness, which is placing an increasing burden on health and social care.”

Olivia Field, policy manager at the British Red Cross, said: “We welcome the Royal College of GPs’ call to develop a list of quality community-based social activities to combat loneliness here in the UK.

“Having a directory like this would make referrals quicker and easier and help connect lonely people with great social activities which are already in their local area but are all too often missed because the right people are not aware of them.

“We need to recognise the importance of interventions in tackling the loneliness. Simple social activities can help people rebuild connections and prevent chronic loneliness, avoiding preventable A&E admissions and GP appointments.

“Our Connecting Communities service supports people to forge new friendships through activities like dancing, gardening or walking groups.”

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