Doctors in Northern Ireland have said loneliness can be as bad for patients’ health as chronic long-term illnesses, with one in five patients visiting their GP mainly because they are lonely.
The Royal College of General Practitioners Northern Ireland (RCGPNI) said that loneliness has because a “public health epidemic” and that for lonely patients 10-minute GP appointments are unfit for purpose as doctors need more time to care.
Doctors say workforce gaps and workload pressures facing surgeries must be addressed to allow GPs to spend longer with their patients.
Dr Grainne Doran, launching the RCGPNI community action plan, said: “Loneliness has become a public health epidemic.
“GPs and their teams have a key role to play in identifying people who are chronically lonely or who are at risk of becoming lonely.
"All too often, GPs are the only human contact that chronically lonely patients have. These moments of meaningful connection matter.
“As family doctors, we believe that treating patients means listening to them and understanding their concerns – but GPs need time to care.
"10-minute appointments are unfit for purpose, but the extreme pressures on general practice means it can be impossible for GPs to spend longer with patients, getting to know what really matters to them.
"We need to address workload pressures and make longer appointments an option for patients right across the region.”
RCGP has said loneliness and social isolation puts people at 50% increased risk of an early death compared to those with good social connections and that it is as bad for health as obesity.
The plan calls for more GPs to be employed to relieve pressure on busy surgeries and for councils to provide a database of community and voluntary sector projects that tackle social isolation.
Dr Doran, who is chair of RCGPNI, said: “Tackling loneliness is about more than medical care. This is why we are launching our community action plan to help tackle the problem and ensure that GPs and their teams can provide the best possible care to lonely patients.
“We know it can be hard for people who are lonely to know where to turn for support. That’s why we want to see a dedicated professional for every GP surgery - a community navigator.
“We also want councils to help people make the right connections by establishing a regularly updated database of community and voluntary sector projects and schemes in their area.
"This will support patients, community navigators and carers to ensure that people are matched to the best schemes for their needs.”