Loneliness is as bad for your health as chronic medical conditions, Britain’s top GP will warn today.
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, says family doctors spend so much time ‘box-ticking’ that they no longer have time to properly talk to their patients.
Many older people go to their GP because they are lonely and want human contact, she says.
But doctors rarely have ‘time to care’ because they are so focused on following medical guidelines, advising every patient about exercise and weight, and getting through people in the allotted ten minutes. Professor Stokes-Lampard wants ministers to cut red tape to allow doctors to ‘treat patients like human beings’.
Addressing the RCGP annual primary care conference in Liverpool today, Professor Stokes-Lampard will say: ‘Social isolation and loneliness are akin to a chronic long-term condition in terms of the impact they have on our patients’ health and 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.’
The doctor, who practises as a GP in Staffordshire, will say: ‘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. Trust us to be doctors so that we can treat our patients like human beings and tailor their treatment to their needs.’
More than half of all people aged 75 in Britain live alone – and more than one million people are thought to be suffering from chronic loneliness.
Being lonely increases the risk of having a heart attack or a stroke by nearly a third, according to a study published by the universities of York, Liverpool and Newcastle last year.
Professor Stokes-Lampard will add: ‘Lonely people consult their GP more often, and in many cases their GP is the professional they come into contact with most frequently. If nothing is done, loneliness will, inevitably, take its toll on the entire healthcare system.’
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: ‘Loneliness can sometimes be the face of more serious underlying issues and should not be disregarded as a minor problem. GPs should be alert to underlying mental health problems such as depression.’