Lonely adults may not be piling more pressure on over-stretched GPs, a major new study has uncovered.
Concerned health chiefs have repeatedly warned a loneliness epidemic is leading to pensioners seeing their doctor for company.
But researchers have today discovered that older adults who class themselves as lonely don’t actually visit their GP more frequently.
Newcastle University scientists made the conclusion after delving into data from more than 226,000 people.
The findings, in the American Journal of Public Health, are in stark contrast to the widespread claims of health leaders across the UK.
Concerned health chiefs have repeatedly warned a loneliness epidemic is leading to pensioners seeing their doctor for company
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, declared in October that loneliness is piling pressure on the NHS.
She pointed to research that had repeatedly shown lonely people consult their GP more often.
But the study, led by Dr Nicole Valtorta, which used data from 126 studies across 19 countries, found no such link.
It discovered lonely pensioners spend longer in hospital – and visit more often – when their health takes a turn for the worse.
Experts who weren’t involved in the study believe the fact that loneliness can lead to depression may be to blame.
Dr Ben Lennox Kail, a sociologist at Georgia State University, said this then leads to poorer physical health that leads to longer hospital stays.
However, he told Reuters: ‘That said, if this were the primary explanation, we might expect to see more regular doctor’s visit – and we don’t.’
Dr Kail explained that it’s likely elderly people without friends and family make the most of the extra social support in hospital.
Age UK claims 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.
And a report commissioned in 2013 estimated that one in ten patients of any age sees their GP because they are lonely rather than unwell.
PM Theresa May appointed a minister earlier this year to help tackle the loneliness suffered by an estimated nine million adults.
Tracey Crouch will lead a drive against a ‘social epidemic’ that experts claim can be as unhealthy as heavy smoking and is piling pressure on doctors.
Patients are finding it increasingly difficult to get a routine appointment, with many already having to wait three to four weeks before they can see a doctor.
But GP surgeries are under huge strain from the rising and ageing population, with many more patients than before having treatment for complex illnesses.
They are also in the grip of a recruitment crisis, with an exodus of family doctors who are retiring or quitting without being replaced by younger trainees.
JUST HOW BAD IS THE RECRUITMENT CRISIS FOR DOCTORS?
Official figures show that 41 per cent – around 10,000 doctors – are 50 or over and are expected to quit within the next five to ten years.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt promised golden hellos of £20,000 for trainees who take up unpopular posts in October.
Fewer young doctors are choosing to specialise as GPs, and are opting for more ‘macho’ career paths as surgeons or specialists.
It came as numbers of GPs are known to be dwindling in recent years, placing even more pressure on an over-stretched health service.
Many are retiring in their 50s, moving abroad or leaving to work in the private sector, as practices have threatened to close their waiting lists until action is taken.
This continued crisis has left many patients at risk, with staff unable to cope with the rising demand and slashed funding.
The shortage of doctors comes despite the NHS adopting a plan in April to recruit 5,000 extra GPs by 2021.
Mr Hunt’s pledge of £2.4 billion was said to be the answer to the staffing shortage, helping plug the growing number of vacancies.
This money was devised to lure GPs to move to the worst-hit areas of England, and to stop them from seeking another career.
Thousands of new ‘doctors on the cheap’ are also being trained to prop up the cash-strapped NHS, it emerged in June.
An army of ‘physician associates’ will work in GP surgeries and hospitals to diagnose patients, recommend treatments and perform minor procedures.
Scores of practices also believe they are working well beyond maximum capacity – feeling pressured to take on a higher workload and risk mistakes.