A study published in the British Journal of General Practice in March 2017 reported that of 1,058 individuals surveyed in GP waiting rooms in Bristol (UK), 0.9% were problem gamblers and that a further 4.3% reported gambling problems that “were low to medium severity”. This is in line with other British studies carried out over the last decade which have reported problem gambling prevalence rates of between 0.5% and 0.9%.
I have long argued that problem gambling is a health issue and that GPs should routinely screen for gambling problems. Back in 2004, I published an article in the British Medical Journal about why problem gambling is a health issue. I argued that the social and health costs of problem gambling were (and still are) large at both individual and societal levels.
Personal costs can include irritability, extreme moodiness, problems with personal relationships (including divorce), absenteeism from work, neglect of family, and bankruptcy. Adverse health consequences for problem gamblers and their partners include depression, insomnia, intestinal disorders, migraine, and other stress related disorders. In my BMJ article I also noted that analysis of calls to the GamCare national gambling helpline indicated that a small minority of callers reported health-related consequences as a result of their problematic gambling. These included depression, anxiety, stomach problems, and suicidal ideation. Obviously many of these medical problems arise through the stress of financial problems but that doesn’t make it any less of a health issue for those suffering from severe gambling problems.
Research published in the American Journal of Addictions has also shown that health-related problems can occur as a result of withdrawal effects. For instance, one study by Dr. Richard Rosenthal and Dr. Henry Lesieur found that at least 65% of pathological gamblers reported at least one physical side effect during withdrawal, including insomnia, headaches, loss of appetite, physical weakness, heart racing, muscle aches, breathing difficulty, and chills.
Based on these findings, problem gambling is very much a health issue that needs to be taken seriously by all in the medical profession. GPs routinely ask patients about smoking cigarettes and drinking, but gambling is something that is not generally discussed. Problem gambling may be perceived as a grey area in the field of health, and it is therefore very easy for those in the medical profession not to have the issue on their wellbeing radar. If the main aim of GPs is to ensure the health of their patients, then an awareness of gambling and the issues surrounding it should be an important part of basic knowledge and should be taught in the curriculum while prospective doctors are at medical school. One of the reasons that GPs don’t routinely screen for problem gambling is because they are not taught about it during their medical training and therefore do not even think about screening for it in the first place. As I recommended in a report commissioned by the British Medical Association, the need for education and training in the diagnosis, appropriate referral and effective treatment of gambling problems must be addressed within GP training. More specifically, GPs should be aware of the types of gambling and problem gambling, demographic and cultural differences, and the problems and common co-morbidities associated with problem gambling. GPs should also understand the importance of screening patients perceived to be at increased risk of gambling addiction, and should be aware of the referral and support services available locally.
I also recommended that treatment for problem gambling should be provided under the NHS (either as standalone services or alongside drug and alcohol addiction services) and funded by gambling-derived profit revenue.
Back in 2011, Dr. Jane Rigbye and myself published a study using Freedom of Information requests to ask NHS trusts if they had ever treated pathological gamblers. Only 3% of the trusts had ever treated a problem gambler and only one trust said they offered dedicated help and support. I’m sure if we repeated the study today, little will have changed.
It is evident that problem gambling is not, as yet, on the public health agenda in the UK. NHS services – including GP surgeries – need to be encouraged to see gambling problems as a primary reason for referral and a valid treatment option. Information about gambling addiction services, in particular services in the local area, should be readily available to gamblers and GP surgeries are a good outlet to advertise such services. Although some gambling services (such as GamCare, the gambling charity I co-founded) provide information to problem gamblers about local services, such information is provided to problem gamblers who have already been proactive in seeking gambling help and/or information. Given that very few GPs could probably treat a problem gambler, what they must have is the knowledge of who they can refer their patients to.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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Cowlishaw, S., Gale, L., Gregory, A., McCambridge, J., & Kessler, D. (2017). Gambling problems among patients in primary care: a cross-sectional study of general practices. British Journal of General Practice, doi: bjgp17X689905
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