Loneliness and social isolation can be as bad for health as a chronic long-term condition, RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard told delegates at the college’s annual conference in Liverpool.
Professor Stokes-Lampard said many older patients are seeing GPs because they are lonely and want someone to talk to, and highlighed the impact of social isolation on patients and its toll on the NHS.
She called on the four governments of the UK to cut red tape and tick boxes in order to give GPs ‘time to care’.
Professor Stokes-Lampard, a GP in Lichfield, Staffordshire, said: ‘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 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.’
According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, an estimated 1.1million people over the age of 65 are chronically lonely in the UK, and lonely people are more likely to develop heart disease, depression and dementia.
Professor Stokes-Lampard added: ‘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.’