Why the lonely are suffering in silence when visiting their GP

  • Date

    Thu 17 Oct 19

Elderly woman

The stigma surrounding loneliness means patients and doctors alike are reluctant to discuss the issue in the GP surgery, according to new research from the University of Essex.

With people experiencing loneliness likely to visit their GP more than those who do not, it means many lonely people are suffering in silence.

Older adults are one of the groups at highest risk of loneliness - with nearly half in the UK reporting feeling lonely. However, as there is a general social stigma surrounding loneliness and feeling lonely, people are less likely to talk about it.

The study, published in the Health and Social Care in the Community journal, suggests that within primary care this manifests itself as patients sometimes visiting their GP purely for social contact, while GPs tend to avoid talking openly about loneliness and asking direct questions, even when they suspect the patient is lonely.

There has been an increase in social problems seen in primary care, and current research shows that GPs can often feel frustrated and powerless when working with social problems.

Researchers recruited 19 GPs across different practices and NHS Trusts within England for the study in order to explore their views and experiences of working with loneliness in their older adult patients. They found that whilst GPs tended to identify loneliness as a problem with the individual, in contrast they also feel that the solution lies in the patients' communities and outside of primary care.

The research, from the School of Health and Social Care, highlighted the need for more training and support for GPs in working with a variety of social problems including loneliness, both during medical training as well as ongoing support for qualified GPs.

"This research is important in shedding light on the difficulties GPs face when working with social problems, for which they receive very limited training and support, as well as how loneliness in older adults is consequently managed within primary care,” explained lead researcher Ana Jovicic. “We call for more joined-up working between primary care and social care with our current NHS structure, and hope that this research will help to raise awareness about the importance of this."

Dr Susan McPherson, from the School of Health and Social Care, added: “Loneliness is known to be associated with depression and this research reinforces the need demonstrated in other research in depression that more psychological and social interventions are needed to support people who feel isolated and are at risk of depression.”