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GPs urged to prescribe ‘social activities’ to combat loneliness

Prime minister launches government’s ‘loneliness strategy’

Jo Carlowe

Monday, 15 October 2018

GPs in England are to be encouraged to use “social prescribing,” the prime minister announced today.

Launching the first government loneliness strategy, Theresa May said GPs will be able to refer patients to take part in social activities such as cookery classes, dance classes and gardening, by 2023.

The prime minister also announced an extra £1.8m for community projects, such as creating new community cafes, and art spaces.

Mrs May also announced the first employer pledge to tackle loneliness in the workplace, and postal workers will be encouraged to check in with lonely people on their delivery rounds in a scheme with Royal Mail in Liverpool, New Malden and Whitby.

In announcing the strategy, the prime minister paid tribute to murdered Labour MP Jo Cox who had campaigned to end loneliness.

“Cox was absolutely right to highlight the critical importance of this growing social injustice, which sits alongside childhood obesity and mental wellbeing as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time,” she said.

She added: “I was pleased to be able to support the loneliness commission set up in Jo’s name and I am determined to do everything possible to take forward its recommendations.”

The loneliness strategy is described as the beginning of a long and far-reaching social change in England.

“It is a vital first step in a national mission to end loneliness in our lifetimes,” the prime minister said.

The prime minister described loneliness as one of the greatest public health challenges, and linked to illnesses including heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: “Today’s announcement is a great result for GPs and for patients. The College has been at the forefront of campaigning to highlight the adverse health implications of loneliness and this shows how much impact we have had in a short space of time.

“GPs across the country are seeing an increase in the number of patients, across all generations, who are not ‘medically ill’ but whose problems stem from social isolation, so it is very encouraging to see the government taking action on this.

“Our community action plan called for access to a ‘social prescriber’ in every practice and the ‘connector’ schemes outlined today will be a major step forward to achieving this.

“We look forward to more detail about how the proposals will be funded and how they will work in practice. We must ensure that we have a society-wide approach to this challenge and that responsibility for the success of the strategy does not fall disproportionately on GPs and their teams.”

Also commenting, Dr Richard Vautrey, of the British Medical Association’s (BMA) GP committee chair, said: “Social prescribing schemes have the potential to have a positive impact for patients – including combating loneliness – as well as reduce GP workload and demand for NHS services. The BMA has long been in favour of this approach and agreed to work with NHS England to encourage the development and commissioning of social prescribing projects.

“As the population lives longer, people are increasingly living in isolation, with research suggesting that this lack of human interaction presents a risk to both the mental and physical health of individuals. We therefore welcome the government’s recognition of loneliness as a public health risk, and the investment in community schemes to tackle social isolation.

“In practice, social prescribing allows patients to be directed to other services, including those within the voluntary and third sector, that can help support them when prescribing medication is not necessarily the most appropriate course of action. Most of these schemes would have an individual who is knowledgeable about the availability of these services, and can act as a liaison between patient and the services, such as lunch clubs, providers of simple home adaptations and community support groups.

“However, in order to inform best practice, the evidence base must be expanded, and new and existing schemes should be properly funded and appropriately evaluated, including considering the long-term impacts on patient outcomes.”

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