GPs and other health and social care professionals have a huge untapped opportunity to spot and help vulnerable people whose health is at risk because of living in a cold home, according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
Each year there are around 24,000 excess winter deaths, NICE says, and many more people are made ill by living in a home that is too cold.
Cold weather is estimated to cost the NHS £1.3bn a year, according to the charity Age UK.
Guidance released by NICE recommends that health and social care professionals - as well as those working in the heating, plumbing and electricity industries - sign people who live in cold homes up to a single-point-of-contact system for help to make their homes warmer.
Deputy chief executive Gillian Leng said: “Anyone who comes into contact with vulnerable groups should be able to refer people to the service, including health and social care staff, safety services staff and workers from charities and voluntary organisations.
“Properly using this huge number of contact opportunities can make a big difference in preventing illness and saving lives.”
Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE) chief executive Kevin Wellman said: “NICE has recommended that plumbers and heating engineers engage with health and care staff in helping identify people at risk.
“Our members can certainly advise on energy-efficient heating systems and check to see that everything is running at an optimum. Information on grants for insulation and improving their homes can also be passed on. It is also encouraging that WaterSafe is also supporting this campaign.
“We look forward to further developments, so we can make our members aware of how to assess customers at risk and the best way to inform the health professionals.”
Worcester, Bosch Group head of external and governmental affairs Neil Schofield said: “With more than 100,000 heating and plumbing engineers in Britain making an estimated eight million home visits every year, the heating industry is in the perfect position to help identify those exposed to the effects of fuel poverty.
“During the course of making calls to service boilers or fix dripping taps, installers can recognise a cold, vulnerable person who might be living in one room or desperately trying to heat their whole home from an electric or gas fire.
“As well as being able to spot the early warning signs, installers have the know-how to improve the situation in the most energy- and cost-efficient ways.”
Baxi managing director Paul Hardy argued local councils must ensure that lines of responsibility, channels of communication and the process itself are clearly defined for the idea to work properly: “Contract engineers will most likely be able to accommodate the NICE guidelines with little difficulty, as they are already geared up to give advice to homeowners. However, small business owners are less likely to have the resources and would need to change their business model quite radically to ensure they can make referrals with ease.”