helen willisRegistered dietitian at Wiltshire Farm Foods, Helen Willis, looks at how the named doctor concept could impact on older people's health:

Jeremy Hunt’s suggestion that the most vulnerable people in society should be assigned a named doctor is, I believe, an important step in recognising the gaps in wraparound care for older communities.

As the pressure on health and social care budgets reaches a critical point, many older people are left struggling to live independently at home and this is compacted by the fact that nuclear families increasingly live apart and are not always able to provide the same level of support for their loved ones.

A worrying issue here is of course the increased prevalence of malnutrition for vulnerable individuals living in the community. We know that eating a balanced diet is the best way to stay physically and mentally strong in old age. A balanced diet can reduce an individual’s risk of stroke by 30 per cent and help fight against illnesses and disease. Yet malnutrition is increasingly prevalent in the UK’s ageing population, leading to the frailty and weakness that is associated with vulnerability in later life and leads to increased hospital admissions.

Ageing presents a number of changes and obstacles that can leave people at higher risk of experiencing problems with their diet. People are more likely to encounter health problems that require them to eat specific foods, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension or heart problems, while research has shown that ageing can lead to diminishing taste and smell resulting in a lack of appetite.

As muscle mass, lean tissue and bone density declines, people are also more likely to experience mobility problems making it harder to go food shopping or prepare a meal at home. Incidences of dysphagia are also much more common in later life, particularly as the condition is commonly linked to stroke recovery and dementia. Not to mention conditions such as dementia and dysphagia that can make cooking and eating difficult or cause patients to be less inclined to cook or eat.

One of the most important steps in tackling malnutrition at home is identifying and addressing early indicators and it is here that an assigned GP could play an important role. Particularly for older people living alone, the GP surgery is often one of the only touch points they have frequent contact with. For patients seeing a different doctor each time they visit the surgery, there is rarely time to discuss their broader health and wellbeing, which means that dietary issues may not become apparent until much further down the line.

If the plans for a named GP come into effect, this would not be about encouraging more frequent visits to the GP, but about returning to the era of the ‘family doctor’, where there would be an increased chance for subtle changes in a patient’s normal eating patterns or weight being spotted early on. There would be more opportunity to get to know patients and discuss more day-to-day subjects such as diet and food preparation.

As the population of older people is set to double in the next 25 years, measures that actively encourage and support independently living at home in later life are not only going to be emotionally beneficial to patients but will also relieve financial pressure on the NHS in the long term.

At Wiltshire Farm Foods, our drivers have daily contact with people aged over 75 living in the community and the message is clear. People want to be able to live independently at home for as long as possible, but older individuals and even couples are often isolated from their communities. Sometimes our delivery drivers are the only people they see or speak to from week to week and while we play our part in looking out for our customers and contacting their next of kin if we have any concerns, there is definitely a need for a more effective support system. A named GP would be a small, but important step, in enabling people to live independently at home in later life for longer.