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As a nation we love to talk about the weather and in my experience we do so often. It can be a way of starting a conversation with a stranger or a way of breaking an uncomfortable silence with a friend, family member or loved one.
We can’t even escape it if we pick up a newspaper or switch on the television and radio to listen to the news. It can unite us and it can divide us. In fact, so significant is the impact that the weather is having on people that it is no wonder it features regularly as a topical item for discussion.
In relation to healthcare, most professionals dread the winter months, as during this period our elderly and most vulnerable are at the greatest risk from the extremes of the weather.
Primary and secondary care nearly buckles under the weight of unprecedented demand year after year and each winter takes longer and longer to recover from.
Indeed, many who work in healthcare are already bracing themselves for this year’s winter onslaught.
There is already panic spreading into every boardroom of every Hospital and CCG across England, as the sudden realisation dawns upon us that all of the winter pressure wards are still open from last year, so where will we put our patients?
But it isn’t just the cold that we need to concern ourselves with. This year has seen severe snow, lots of rain, flooding and not enough sunshine.
The lack of sunshine becomes even more problematic, especially if we consider sunshine in relation to Vitamin D. Small amounts of Vitamin D can be obtained from food such as oily fish, eggs and fortified cereals, but mostly it is synthesized by the body through exposure to sunshine.
Vitamin D deficiency can lead to bone and muscle problems – yet another impact of the unpredictable weather patterns here in England.
The question therefore is, “should everybody in England be on Vitamin D supplements at certain times of the year?” Previous advice suggested this should be the case, particularly for pregnant women, people who are not exposed to the sun regularly and ethnic minority groups with dark skin.
New guidelines from Public Health England extend this advice to cover everybody in the UK during autumn and winter months.
The advice from Public Health England is supported by research carried out by the University of Manchester and Salford Royal Hospitals.
In a study of white children aged 12-15 it was found that 16% of those involved had lower than required levels of Vitamin D in their blood by the end of the summer period. This study focused on one season of the year and when it was extended to cover all four seasons, the study concluded that 75% of those involved failed to reach the level it should be by the end of winter.
As such, future studies are now underway focusing on people aged 65-84. The impact of poor muscle and bone health will be another significant health concern and financial headache for the NHS in the future, especially with an ageing population.
If 1 in 5 of the population will not get the necessary Vitamin D from the sun that is required to prevent bone disease, then action must be taken.
Regardless of how impractical or undesirable it is, the only course of action is to consider supplementation for all. At first glance, this may seem like yet another thing for GPs to do in their already busy day. But, if Vitamin D was prescribed to all during autumn and winter then these recommendations have the potential to alleviate some pressure on services, at the very least by avoiding the need to refer patients for screening for Vitamin D deficiency.

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