Tackling an epidemic of loneliness would help to free up GP appointments and cut waiting times, researchers have found.
People who said they did not have any important social circles, such as a hobby, a group of friends or close family, were six times more likely to be a frequent user of GP services than people who had three or more groups.
Social isolation was closely linked with worse mental and physical health, but all these measures improved where someone was encouraged to join in a new social group.
The increased reliance on the health system wasn’t just seen in older people, as students who had just moved to the UK and were separated from their social support network also made more use of GPs.
“The top 10 per cent of attendees to a GP accounts for 30-50 per cent of appointments, placing a considerable strain on the healthcare system,” said lead researcher Dr Juliet Wakefield, a psychologist in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences.
“They are likely to be dissatisfied with the care they receive, and are often cited by physicians as a cause of occupational stress and burnout.
“All in all, not a good combination for the healthcare system,” Dr Wakefield added.
Office for National Statistics figures show that 2.4 million people in the UK are chronically lonely, and this increases their risk of a host of other diseases.
The research, conducted in association with the University of Dundee and University of Queensland, was published in the journal Annals of Behavioural Medicine and looked at loneliness through three different studies.
This included a sample of 1,752 patients at GP practices and the new student cohort, and reflected how life changes can impact our social connectedness and mental health.
It found in all three studies a patient without important social connections was more likely to attend their GP, but there was no difference in their health needs that could explain it.
In a six month period people without any social groups had an average of 4.69 GP appointments, compared to 3.52 appointments among those with more social groups – an increase of a third.
In a third study, on a group of particularly high users of GP services, the researchers found that the sense of loneliness decreased in those who joined a group, such as an arts or exercise class – as did their GP appointments.
The authors concluded: “Unmet social needs among frequent attenders warrant closer consideration. Interventions that target social group connectedness show promise for reducing overutilisation of primary care services.”
The NHS is rolling out plans for “social prescribing” schemes, which aim to tackle these sorts of social issues and provide charity services and classes that doctors can refer patients to, who can support patients when they don’t need a medical intervention.
“Frequent attendance at a doctor is not just motivated by health needs but also by social needs,” Dr Wakefield added.
“Further research is needed, but it could be beneficial for physicians to look at the unmet social needs of those that frequently attend, and perhaps help them to become better connected with their local community.
“They may well find that this has an overall benefit to their mental and physical health.”
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