Improving access to GP services for people who are homeless

Most people take access to a GP for granted but if you become homeless, it’s not always so easy.
An example of a card to help people register at a GP without proof of address

Evidence suggests that not having a permanent place to call home can have a negative impact on your physical and mental health. According to one estimate, the average age of death for a person who is homeless is just 47 years old.

With the latest Government figures indicating that more people than ever are experiencing homelessness, it is essential that people in this situation can access the health and care support they need.

The experience of not having a permanent address

If you don’t have proof of address when you want to register with a GP, you can find yourself being turned away.

Healthwatch Croydon recently talked to local homeless people about their experiences of health services. A quarter of the people they spoke to had struggled to register with their GP.

I was living in a tent and I needed ID proof of address, they wouldn’t let me register without.
— Respondent speaking to Healthwatch Croydon

One person told homelessness charity Groundswell:

“When you try to register with a doctor and they send you away because you are homeless you just end up stuck… Some of us have got mental health problems, some physical health problems and a lot of the time it might be those problems that have landed us in homelessness to begin with. When these problems aren’t going to get looked at because you don’t have an address then we are just going to be in a vicious cycle.”

What rights do people have?

NHS guidelines say that GP services cannot refuse to register someone because they are homeless, do not have proof of address or identification, or because of their immigration status. GP surgeries can only refuse to register someone if they are already full or if the person is living outside the practice area – and they must explain this in writing.

However, not everyone is aware of their rights when it comes to registering with their local GP.

A simple solution to help people facing homelessness

In response to this issue, Groundswell has produced ‘My Right to Healthcare’ cards, to help people understand their rights when it comes to registering with their GP.

The cards, which have been commissioned by the Healthy London Partnership’s Homeless Health Programme, let both homeless people and professionals working at GP surgeries know that to register with your local GP practice:

  • You don’t need proof of address
  • You don’t need identification documents
  • Your immigration status doesn’t matter.

They also include Healthwatch’s national helpline number, so anyone who is refused registration by their GP for these reasons can share their experience with their local Healthwatch.

In just over a year, 45,000 cards have been distributed to homeless people across London.

One charity worker told Groundswell about the difference this is making.

Being aware of their rights means that rough sleepers will keep the cards in their pockets until they need to go and see a GP and use them almost as ammunition when challenged by receptionists or NHS staff who are unaware.

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