One In Five Doctors Send Patients to Food Banks

Ethics The Economy
Food bank referrals

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I previously wrote about the rise in food banks in the UK. Well, a recent survey by Pulse has found that 22% of GP’s had been asked to refer a patient to a food bank in the last year. This compares to 16% the previous year, which shows that this alarming trend is still on the rise.

The number of referrals has increased by 37.5%, but how is this possible?

Cuts in Government Spending

It’s important to consider changes in government spending and levels of unemployment. With cuts to spending on local services and welfare benefits, as well as higher unemployment, it is no surprise that the British public has been affected.

One project, completed by Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK (PSE), found these key results from their survey:

  • 4 million adults and children are not properly fed
  • Nearly 18 million are unable to afford adequate housing conditions
  • Twelve million are unable to engage in common social activities due to lack of money
  • 1 in 3 do not have the money to adequately heat their homes in the winter

These statistics show just how much of a devastating impact changes in government spending can have on the public. These changes have inevitably led to an increase in poverty levels, which in turn has led to the rise in food banks. More specifically, the number of food banks in the UK has gone from 29 in 2009 to a whopping 251 in 2014.

How do Referrals Work?

The Trussel Trust is one of the biggest and most well-recognised food banks in the UK. This specific food bank operates a referral system. They require for individuals to have been referred by a frontline care professional, such as a physician or someone from Citizen’s advice bureau. This referral voucher can be exchanged for a food parcel with about 3 days’ worth of food, relative to their family’s size.

While referrals are important in order to prevent a culture of dependency from being created, and for limiting provisions, it can create problems for some frontline care professionals. They are given food vouchers and are expected to refer the appropriate families to the food banks. Without the proper training or information, it can be very difficult to make this decision.

According to statistics from the Trussell Trust, an estimated 27,000 front-line care professionals, such as GPs, provided referrals in 2013-14.

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How Food Bank Referrals Affect GPs

The need for referrals is sadly placing increased pressures on GP’s, who are increasingly being asked to refer a patient to a food bank. That means they have to take on additional responsibilities when they are already struggling with the workload they have. The most worrying part is that doctors do not have the  information they require to assess their patient’s need.

Respondents of the survey stated that refusing to refer patients could undermine their relationship, putting them in an ‘impossible position’. While one respondent stated that while they were happy to refer patients to social services as required, they felt that they should not be expected to take on this type of additional work.

They are not only thinking about how this affects their workload, but they are also keeping in mind how this affects their patients. Keep in mind, asking your GP for a voucher can be a humiliating experience. One respondent stated that they felt this to be “completely unnecessary in the vast majority of cases”.

What Can Be Done?

Food poverty

Research conducted by Church Poverty led to the following recommendations, among others:

  • All political parties should commit to increasing the minimum wage to the living wage by 2020
  • The government should review the use of zero-hour contracts in order to assess their impact and ensure that people are able to earn enough income to survive
  • All political parties should outline clear plans to address the prevention of food poverty in the UK

I believe these recommendations are a great start and must be looked at by the government and all political parties. In this day and age, people should not have to be facing food poverty. This is particularly the case for people who are in work.

Changes need to be made and referral systems to food banks must also be taken into consideration. While I think referrals are and important part of the process to ensure that everyone who is in need of these services receives the help they require, it should not be a responsibility taken on by GP’s. They simply do not have the time or resources to taken on this additional workload.

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