A “compassionate community” scheme aimed at tackling the connection between loneliness and ill health has helped cut emergency hospital admissions in its area by 17%, official figures reveal. At a time when hospital overcrowding and the future of the National Health Service are becoming a major political issue in Britain, the small town of Frome in Somerset, south-west England, is bucking the trend with a scheme that may have international implications for health policy.

“While emergency admissions to hospitals across Somerset have increased by 29%, incurring a 21% increase in costs, Frome has seen admissions fall 17% with a 21% reduction in costs in 2016 to 2017 compared to 2013 and 2014,” said Julian Abel, a consultant in palliative care who is involved in the project. The figures are non-patient-identifiable NHS data he receives from data managers in Somerset.

“In terms of magnitude this represents 5% of the total health budget. No other factors were attributable to the fall in hospital admission rates,” said Abel. “The combining of the community development approach with the care of the medical practice is unique in Somerset.”

Writing in this issue of Resurgence & Ecologist, Abel says that the issues of loneliness and the plight of the sick have become “an urgent murmur at the failing heart of our communities”.

Government has predicted that management of long-term health conditions would reduce total hospital admission rates, but that hasn’t happened. The Compassionate Frome project proves that another approach is necessary, Abel said.

Set up in 2014, Health Connections Mendip, the community development service at Frome Medical Practice, compiled a service directory of care providers and volunteers from health centres, local charities and other groups to provide support to people with poor health. These services range from attending to someone’s physical and emotional needs to assisting with the shopping, walking the dog or helping someone attend a confidence-boosting activity such as the local choir.

“First we identify people most in need of support, and we offer a one-to-one service where people can identify their needs,” said Abel. “These needs are matched to services provided in the directory, with new groups set up where there are gaps.”

Volunteers are trained as Community Connectors to help people they meet find the right service for them. To date there are nearly 400 groups and organisations offering support, advice, companionship and creative activity. Through the project, GP services integrate the links with the community they serve in their daily work, and are able to reconnect people into the community in which they live.

“Chronic loneliness increases the risk of early death by more than 20%,” said Abel, “but these days increasing numbers of otherwise healthy people also suffer from a devastating sense of loneliness and a consequent loss of self-esteem.” The impact of the project could have wider implications in helping to solve Britain’s current crisis in health care and for the rest of society, he said. Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Many older or retired people are isolated, and uninspired, and very sad, as I was,” one woman who uses the project’s services said. “Now I feel happier, and look forward to meeting others.”

“I wish I had known about all of the support sooner,” said another Frome resident. “It is so simple and so sensible to have it all in one place.”

Organisers of the project are planning to roll it out in areas across Somerset and introduce the model in Wales. They are also applying for funding to implement a similar plan in Minnesota, in the United States.

See also the articles Compassion is the Best Medicine, A Manifesto for Compassionate Communities.

Marianne Brown is Deputy Editor of Resurgence & Ecologist.