EXCLUSIVE: New evidence suggests tackling loneliness and isolation reduces health costs

| 21st February 2018

Frome alone. Community events like Frome Carnival and compassion are important for health and happiness. 

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Kindness is a public good. But it can also reduce the stress on our public services. MARIANNE BROWN reports on new evidence which suggests that tackling loneliness and isolation also reduces the national health bill. The story, published in Resurgence and Ecologist magazine, has now received positive national media coverage.

Chronic loneliness increases the risk of early death by more than 20 percent. These days increasing numbers of otherwise healthy people also suffer from a devastating sense of loneliness and a consequent loss of self-esteem.

A “compassionate community” scheme aimed at tackling the connection between loneliness and ill health has helped cut emergency hospital admissions in its area by 20 percent, official figures reveal.

Julian Abel explains exactly why compassion is the best medicine.

At a time when hospital overcrowding and the future of the National Health Service are becoming a major political issue in Britain, the small town of Frome in Somerset, South West England, is bucking the trend with a scheme that may have international implications for health policy.

“While emergency admissions to hospitals across Somerset have increased by 30 percent, incurring a 21 percent increase in costs, Frome has seen admissions fall 20 percent with a 21 percent reduction in costs in 2016 to 2017 compared to 2013 and 2014,” said Julian Abel, a consultant in palliative care who is involved in the project. The figures are non-patient-identifiable NHS data he receives from data managers in Somerset.

Emotional needs

“In terms of magnitude this represents five percent of the total health budget. No other factors were attributable to the fall in hospital admission rates,” Abel added. “Frome is the only place in Somerset that has had a change in our health-care management.”

Writing exclusively in this issue of Resurgence & Ecologist, Abel says that the issues of loneliness and the plight of the sick have become “an urgent murmur at the failing heart of our communities”.

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In the past the government said management of long-term health conditions would reduce hospital admission rates, but that hasn’t happened. The Compassionate Frome project proves that another approach is necessary.

Set up in 2014, Health Connections Mendip, the community development service at Frome Medical Practice, compiled a service directory of care providers and volunteers from health centres, local charities and other groups to provide support to people with poor health.

These services range from attending to someone’s physical and emotional needs to assisting with the shopping, walking the dog or helping someone attend a confidence-boosting activity such as the local choir.

Wider implications

“First we identify people most in need of support, and we offer a one-to-one service where people can identify their needs,” said Abel. “These needs are matched to services provided in the directory, with new groups set up where there are gaps.”

Volunteers are trained as Community Connectors to help people they meet find the right service for them. To date there are nearly 400 groups and organisations offering support, advice, companionship and creative activity.

Through the project, GP services integrate the links with the community they serve in their daily work, and are able to reconnect people into the community in which they live.

“Chronic loneliness increases the risk of early death by more than 20 percent,” said Abel. “But these days increasing numbers of otherwise healthy people also suffer from a devastating sense of loneliness and a consequent loss of self-esteem.”

The impact of the project could have wider implications in helping to solve Britain’s current crisis in health care and for the rest of society, he said. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

Similar plan

“Many older [and] retired people are isolated, and uninspired, and very sad, as was I,” one woman who uses the project’s services said. “Now I feel happier, and look forward to meeting others.”

Another Frome resident said: “I wish I had known about all of the support sooner. It is so simple and so sensible to have it all in one place.”

Organisers of the project are planning to roll it out in areas across Somerset and introduce the model in Wales. They are also applying for funding to implement a similar plan in Minnesota, in the United States.

This Author

Marianne Brown is deputy editor of Resurgence & Ecologist magazine. You can subscribe to the magazine online.

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