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GPs must help patients in cold homes - but Health and Wellbeing Boards should act, too

GPs have an important role to play in identifying patients who are at risk of health problems from living in a cold home, argues NICE guidelines committee co-chair Dr David Sloan

GPs know only too well that cold weather kills. In a typical year, around 24,000 more lives are lost in the winter months compared with the rest of the year.

This is because cold homes can be a killer. It is not surprising who is at risk: people living in fuel poverty who cannot afford to heat their homes, children and adults with chronic conditions like asthma, heart disease and COPD, those who are immobile, and people aged over 75.

The mercury does not have to drop too far for danger to rise.

It may be a surprise that moderately cold temperatures (below 6ºC) kill. They have a direct effect on the numbers of heart attacks, strokes, cases of respiratory diseases, flu and falls.But these early deaths and injuries can be prevented.

A family doctor is often at the sharp end of spotting people who are sick because of winter weather. But as we all know, GPs are pushed for time. It’s simply not possible for a family doctor always to visit someone’s home who they suspect is at risk from the cold.

The committee saw a collective role for people who come into contact with vulnerable people living in cold homes. This includes primary health and home care workers, but also heating engineers, charity workers and volunteers ready and able to help and stop needless suffering and death.

We want to see every area equipped for the task. Health and Wellbeing Boards should ensure that a single point of contact is prepared to help people who live in cold homes. This will provide vital support to people on the frontline working with the vulnerable and take on the work needed to warm up people’s homes, such as new boilers, double glazing and getting the best fuel tariff.

Currently these one-stop services are patchy. But local authorities are not starting from scratch - they can pull together services that already exist and help target the people who need them.

As well as helping to tackle the causes of ill health by warming homes, we also need to address commonly held misconceptions, for instance that a shot of whisky or other alcoholic drink can somehow root out the cold, that hypothermia is the main risk posed by the cold, or that sleeping in a cold bedroom is good for your health.

The rewards are worth the investment. These plans would stop the vicious circle that sees people living in cold homes admitted to hospital, treated for their condition but discharged back into the environment that made them sick in the first place. It would reduce pressure on primary and secondary care and save the time of all the professionals who become involved in getting the person back on their feet.

Dr David Sloan, former GP and director of Public Health, was the co-chair of the NICE committee behind new guidance aimed at preventing deaths caused by the cold

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Readers' comments (16)

  • We come into contact with them yes, but wtf you expect a GP to do when a. they can't pay for their heat, b. their boiler is spoilt, etc. We are certainly not the best placed people to deal with this issue. Not to mention overworked as it is, and unfunded for this. Former GP? Use your brain then. Not every 'area has to be equipped for this', just the BEST area to do so e.g. public health

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  • I am deeply concerned about the aspiration to share information with social care on this. I can see a time soon where a unified record of social and medical history will not only be created, but will be accessible to many via and general information leak in large systems (see Sony Pictures for examples of systems too complex to secure).
    Very soon a prerquisite for accessing NHS care will be consent to share all your information. And if you don't take up the latest boiler offer from the 'preferred suppliers' - perhaps the power that be will question you right to healthcare...

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  • GPs who don't want to do this - head to sunny Australia!

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  • ufo ufo ufo ufo

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  • And what are you supposed to do with the patient who won't put the heating on because they don't want to spend money? GPs are not babysitters. We don't have ultimate responsibility for everything and everyone.

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  • There will be a time when we will be doing everything except clinically focussing on patients.

    Then NHSE will get the physician' assitants to see the patients.
    NHS collapse, privatisation in.

    Private GP services flourishing- can't wait !!

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  • what a cloud cuckoo fool.

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  • My wise old trainer and later friend long ago told me I was responsible TO my patients, but not responsible FOR them. Seems like an appropriate rejoinder to Dr Sloan who obviously is not familiar with Arkell vs Pressdram.

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  • NICE guidance on general population well being
    "There should be a GP in everyone's kitchen cupboard"

    Political take on NICE guidance
    "All NICE guidance should be made compulsory and backed up by the law ...or appraisal ...or something"

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  • Ildiko Spelt

    ...And who will see the patients instead of us???

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