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Top urgent care doctor: Impact of loneliness at Christmas causes spike in A&E numbers

The impact of loneliness and isolation on older people at Christmas can cause a major spike in admissions to A&E, England’s top urgent care doctor has said.

Professor Keith Willett, NHS England’s Director for Acute Care, said studies show people left on their own over the festive period are more likely to end up in A&E with worse problems.

He cited a recent study in the south west* from the South West Academic Health Science Network which showed a clear link between social isolation and care needs in people over 75 admitted to A&E.

In the study, frailty was not a key reason for being admitted but 86 per cent were admitted from their own homes and 45 per cent said they were socially isolated.

He warned anyone feeling ‘under the weather’ to get treatment early, not store up problems for the holidays or January, and asked people to visit the pharmacy for minor ailments or cold and flu remedies instead of going to the GP or A&E.

He urged the public to join NHS England’s Winter Friends Campaign, which encourages people to look in on an elderly friend or neighbour over Christmas to make sure they are warm and coping well.

“Over Christmas we want to keep people out of busy A&E departments as far as possible,” said Prof Willett.

We know there is a correlation between people who are on their own and admission to hospital.

“So, we are calling on the public to think about those people living nearby who might benefit from a visit. If they see other people they are more likely to mention a health problem and then are more likely to seek help early.”

Professor Willett also said people should order medicines in plenty of time and make sure not to run out. Also remember to take medicines with you when you travel and make sure you have cough and cold remedies to hand in case you or your family become ill with a winter virus.

If you are staying away from home with family or friends, and you do forget your medicines remember any community pharmacist can issue you an emergency five-day supply – “no one should go without their medicines”. If you can’t remember the medical names, your usual pharmacist will have a record.

He said people should look after themselves by eating healthily; having their heating at a reasonable level, and wrapping up warm if they go out. They should help prevent the spread of infection by taking practical steps like washing hands regularly – and making sure children do the same.

If a frail or elderly friend or relative does feel unwell over the holiday, says Professor Willett, then do not “let them soldier on to the new year” but seek early advice – visiting a pharmacy for advice, calling the NHS’s 111 helpline, or visiting the GP if appropriate. If you, or they, are away from home everyone can still get access to advice from a GP in or out of hours by phoning NHS111; many young people don’t realise that.

“We often see a sharp spike in emergency admissions at this time of year and we know that the majority of these are elderly people who have stored up a health problem at home and haven’t sought treatment early hoping it will ‘go away’.

“Our message this year is if you’re feeling under the weather don’t store it up – go and see the Pharmacist, look at NHS Choices or call 111 for advice.  Don’t end up in A&E please.”

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