GP practices will be asked to pilot a ‘low cost’ programme of intervention for older people who are lonely, under a new scheme that public health chiefs hope to roll out nationwide.
Public Health England said that its Behavioural Insights Team has developed a new intervention, drawing on what has worked well in previous trials, which it hopes to pilot in GP practices across Greater Manchester this year.
Under the plans, GP practices will be asked to identify which older patients may be at risk from social isolation and loneliness and ‘help them through provision of services’, PHE said.
PHE said that although ‘evidence is still limited for effective interventions to tackle social isolation and loneliness’, it is known that it ‘substantially affects morbidity and mortality’.
It refused to clarify exactly what GPs will be asked to do, but said the social prescribing programme should not ‘burden’ GPs, it said.
A spokesperson said: ‘The Behavioural Insights Team at Public Health England, along with partners, have designed a low cost, scalable and evidence-informed intervention to reduce social isolation and loneliness and have been given NHS ethics approval to run a pilot.
‘We aim to use efficient processes that do not burden the GP to identify older people in primary care who are at risk of social isolation and loneliness and help them through provision of services that draw on the best available evidence of “what works”.’
He added that PHE is ‘in discussion with general practice in Greater Manchester to pilot this during the 2016/17 financial year’, with the aim ‘to determine feasibility and to inform future testing of intervention effectiveness’.
Dr Des Spence, a GP in Glasgow, and a tutor at the University of Glasgow, said: ‘It sounds like a good idea but I don’t know that it is a good idea necessarily. I think that kind of falls beyond the remit of doctors. There are so many of these initiatives and they just don’t work in my experience.
‘Loneliness I would have thought is a major social issue, it is not a medical issue and I just don’t think healthcare is necessarily the right agency to be responsible for that.’
He said ‘there’s a conveyor belt’ of these ‘well-intentioned good ideas’ being rolled out to GPs in Scotland as well but ‘often what happens is that they get rolled out, there is lots of hype around them for a month or two and then they quietly are shelved, as they make little impact’.
The rise of social prescribing
NHS England’s GP Forward View raised social prescribing as one route to manage patient demand on GP services, and a recent King’s Fund report said GPs should prescribe gardening to patients with conditions such as heart disease and dementia.
But GP leaders have expressed differing opinions over the role of social prescribing in general practice, with some arguing it provides GPs with alternative routes to manage patients who do not need traditional care and others branding it ‘a waste of time.
Dr Arvind Madan, NHS England’s Director of Primary Care, has said that the ‘ambition is that, eventually, every practice will have access to all the initiatives in the GPFV’, including social prescribing options.