7 in 10 GPs see a ‘worrying’ rise in patients with cost of living-related problems

The Royal College of GPs’ annual survey has found that GPs are being asked to provide advice on financial problems and council services

3rd October 2023 about a 3 minute read
“We will always do our very best for all our patients, but the demand for our services is rising at the same time as we have more GPs leaving the profession than entering it, and general practice itself is now in dire need of support.”  Professor Kamila Hawthorne, chair, Royal College of GPs

Seven out of ten GPs are seeing a “worrying” rise in the number of patients seeking help with problems linked to the rising cost-of-living, a survey by the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) has found.

The survey, which had responses from 1,855 GPs, found that 73% said that they had noticed an increase in patients presenting with problems relating to poor diet and poverty, compared with last year. Respondents said that patients were increasingly asking for support with non-medical issues such as financial advice and access to council services.

More than nine in 10 (93%) said they were concerned that the rising number of patients needing support with the cost of living would limit their ability to provide the medical care needed by patients.

The chair of the RCGP, Professor Kamila Hawthorne, said that the cost-of-living crisis was affecting patients’ physical and mental health. “Our GPs witness daily the devastating health effects that the rising cost of living and spiraling deprivation is having on patients in many communities across the UK. The link between poverty and worsening health has long been established, taking a physical, emotional, and psychological toll which can result in the early development, or exacerbation of existing multiple chronic conditions,” she said. “We’re also seeing patients with diseases that should have been confined to the annals of history – malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies and even rickets – presenting in many GP surgeries across the UK.”

Knock-on effect on GPs’ wellbeing

The RCGP uses its annual survey to track the state of general practice and the experience of its members. This is the first time, however, that it has included a specific question on the cost of living and the impact of poverty on patients. The question was included in response to growing concerns from members, and will continue to be part of future surveys.

Hawthorne warned that the increase in patients with problems related to the cost of living could have a knock-on effect on the wellbeing of GPs themselves: “GPs are doctors, not financial advisers or housing officers, but we are often the first ports of call in a crisis. Through links to social prescribing, general practice can and does offer a vital lifeline to many of the most vulnerable in society.”

She added that the demands on GPs were adding to the mental strain many were experiencing: “GPs fully understand how social factors cause health inequalities and from there, serious problems in physical and mental health, but because they often have no power to make the changes needed, they are unable to offer solutions to their patients which get to the root of the problem. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that the areas most affected receive the least support to tackle the crisis.

“We will always do our very best for all our patients, but the demand for our services is rising at the same time as we have more GPs leaving the profession than entering it, and general practice itself is now in dire need of support.”

There is already a problem with the number of doctors choosing to leave general practice, and, according to a recent analysis by the Health Foundation, the shortage of GPs is more severe in areas of deprivation. Practices in the poorest areas also have relatively less funding to deal with a greater number of patients with multiple and complex health conditions.

“Our patients and our GPs deserve better. That’s why it is imperative that the Government increases support for general practice and all our patients, with a particular focus on GP practices in deprived areas,” Hawthorne said.

FCC Insight

The survey findings demonstrate that the steep rise in the cost of living is having an impact on people’s physical and mental health, and often it is GPs who people turn to first, not just for help with their health problems but with financial and housing difficulties. Unfortunately, deprived areas already have fewer GP practices, adding to the stress on GPs working in those areas. Obviously this is a complex and difficult problem to address, but we would like to see the government offer more support for GPs struggling with these new demands. This could perhaps include providing finance and housing specialists in GP practices who can deal with some of the problems that GPs are not equipped to handle.