THE number of GPs having to refer patients to food banks is increasing, with more than one in five having to take drastic action due to increasing poverty levels, GPs Pulse magazine revealed yesterday.
A Pulse magazine survey of 695 GPs found that 22% had been asked to refer a patient to a food bank in the past 12 months – an increase on the 16% who said they had been asked the previous year. The survey highlights the growing pressure on GPs to assume responsibility for other parts of the system, even as they are struggling to cope with their own workload.
Many of the respondents to the survey explained that they didn’t have the information on hand to assess their patient’s financial need, and explained that refusing patients could undermine their relationship. GP leaders have previously described this as an ‘impossible position’ for GPs, having to decide which patients were worthy of help and which were not, but politicians have stated that the requirement for a GP referral ‘rightly limits provision’ and prevents ‘a culture of dependency being created’.
Pulse reported last year that the previous government’s austerity measures were having a knock-on impact on public health, with the number of patients discharged after being treated for malnutrition having risen 84% in the five years to 2012/13. One respondent from London said that they were dealing with requests once every two weeks.
Another GP who didn’t wish to be named, from the North West, told Pulse that their CCG had directed them to act as a gatekeeper for food bank services, saying: ‘We were informed we would be getting food vouchers and would be expected to direct appropriate families to the food centres. We refused to accept our vouchers as we felt this could not possibly be a part of our job. I am more than happy to refer to social services as required. I did not feel we could be expected to take on any additional work such as this.’
Dr John Caldwell, a GP in Liverpool, said the problems are increasing. He said: ‘Food banks have been around for some years, but the usage of them has been much higher in our area over the last few years, and is still rising. The requirement that a family get a voucher from a doctor is a humiliating process which I believe to be completely unnecessary in the vast majority of cases. Another sign of the victimisation of the poor which is prevalent under the current government, and a further sign that GP time is considered valueless.’
Former RCGP chair and London GP Professor Clare Gerada has said that GPs were increasingly expected to fill in gaps across all areas of social care support, saying: ‘It’s not just food banks we are seeing an increase in. It’s letters of support to housing and for benefits. We are seeing increasing homeless and unstable accommodation. The poor are getting poorer and GPs see the consequences way before the official figures pick it up.’