GPs ‘fail to make link’ between loneliness and ill health, campaigners claim

DOCTORS ARE failing to make the link between loneliness and behaviour that damages health, it is claimed today.

Researchers for the Campaign to End Loneliness spoke to more than 1,000 GPs across the country, finding 41 per cent in Yorkshire did not think loneliness made a significant contribution to early death.

This was despite studies showing that poor social relationships have a greater influence on risk of early death than being obese.

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The Yorkshire Post joined forces with the Campaign to End Loneliness in February after the heart-breaking scale of loneliness affecting people across the region was revealed.

There are 281,870 over-65s who live alone across Yorkshire and almost a third admit to feeling lonely all of the time or often. And behind that sad statistic are serious health implications - living with loneliness is equally as detrimental to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The new research found some doctors seemed unaware that loneliness, as well as being a significant health risk in itself, has also been shown to be a significant contributor to the likelihood of risky behaviours like alcohol abuse. People who live alone have a poorer diet, eating fewer vegetables each day and are more likely to smoke and be overweight.

When asked if loneliness should be treated as a public health issue, more than half of Yorkshire doctors agreed it should. However, only 31 per cent thought clinical commissioning groups (CCGs), which commission health services, should take responsibility for paying for services to alleviate and prevent loneliness.

Jack Neill-Hall, campaigns manager at the Campaign to End Loneliness, said: “The majority of doctors are aware that loneliness is having a significant health risk to their patients and we know that they are seeing large numbers of patients who are in their surgeries not because they are ill, but because they are feeling lonely. But less than half think that clinical commissioning groups should be investing in services to tackle loneliness.”

The campaign is now calling on CCGs, to make more money available for schemes aimed at reducing loneliness like the £1 million announced this week by Calderdale Council and Calderdale CCG.

The funding will be used to deliver a programme on tackling loneliness which will work with established community organisations and development trusts to strengthen existing support.

Mr Neill-Hall said: “That is exactly the type of thing that should be happening. It is our hope that as doctors better understand the health risks to their patients and understand the link between loneliness and unhealthy behaviours then they will be prepared to jointly commission preventative services and target loneliness.”

The campaign also recommends GPs look into social prescribing and take advantage of existing schemes across the county, such as a scheme in Rotherham for people with dual sensory loss.

Kate Jopling, director for the Campaign to End Loneliness, said: “As well as educating us about the dangers of an unhealthy lifestyle, doctors need to take an active role in addressing the root causes of poor health choices. By helping people to maintain their social connections and relationships, or to make new ones, we can also help them to improve their health and ultimately reduce their chances of needing expensive medical care in later life.”