Programme no. 131-OP
Is patients’ loneliness a matter for general practice? A qualitative study
Thorkil Thorsen*1, Frans Boch Waldorff2, Tina Due*3
1The Research Unit for General Practice and Section of General Practice, Department of Public Health,University of Copenhagen,Copenhagen,Denmark, 2The Research Unit for General Practice and Section of General Practice, Department of Public Health, University of Copenhagen and Research Unit of General Practice, Department of Public Health,University of Southern Denmark, Odense,Copenhagen,Denmark, 3The Research Unit for General Practice and Section of General Practice, Department of Public Health,University of Copenhagen,Copenhagen,Denmark
* = Presenting author
Objectives: This study focuses on GPs awareness of the consequences of loneliness and on their attitudes towards and perception of possibilities to actively address the issue of loneliness during consultations.
Background: Loneliness is linked to morbidity and mortality and use of social and health services resources. Therefore, general practitioners might have an important role to play – or do they? Not much is known about how GPs handle loneliness in their patients, and not much is known about the GPs’ attitude and willingness to take on this task.
The interviewed GPs’ spontaneous reaction to our request for an interview focusing on loneliness was that they did not have any lonely patients or at least that they did not know of any. However, when the interviewer turned up a couple of weeks later they all had case stories of lonely patients to tell.
The interviewees had slightly different definitions of loneliness, but these differences did not seem to affect their attitudes and behavior regarding lonely patients. Some were hesitant to mention the word loneliness in conversation with the patient and to write it in the record, although they regarded loneliness as a critical factor for disease and recovery. The interviewees all regarded social network and loneliness to be a natural part of an anamnesis when relevant, but they did not consider it obvious to investigate feelings of loneliness in patients as an isolated task of theirs. Reasons mentioned for this was that just “diagnosing loneliness” was of limited use – or might be contraindicated – because GPs themselves normally have no tools or options to alleviate this feeling. Knowledge of municipal and other support activities for lonely people that GPs can refer to or recommend was limited.
Material/Methods: We performed semi-structured interviews with 13 Danish general practitioners partly from an urban area and partly from a rural area. The interviews were transcribed verbatim for thematic analysis.
Conclusion: General practitioners regarded patients’ loneliness as an important factor for disease and health. The dominant feeling of the GPs was that they themselves cannot help the patient get rid of the feeling of loneliness. GPs should have updated information on relevant activities outside general practice in order to guide and refer lonely patients.
Points for discussion: Should general practitioners take an interest in loneliness in their patients? How should they address the topic?