Dr Toni Hazell Reviews the Latest Evidence and Guidance on Gambling-Related Harm, Offering Practical Advice on Identification, Signposting, and Referral
|Read This Article to Learn More About:|
GPs and other primary care practitioners are used to seeing patients living with addiction. We routinely refer and signpost people with addictions to drugs, alcohol, or nicotine to local services. Yet, how often do primary care practitioners think about whether their patients may be addicted to gambling, and whether that is affecting their physical and mental health?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of adults participating in any form of gambling decreased, but levels have since returned to those seen in 2019.1 In 2021, around 59% of the adult population in Great Britain reported having taken part in gambling of some form in the previous 12 months1 (although, in previous studies, this figure decreased by around 14% when the National Lottery was excluded2). In the same timeframe, a 2022 Gambling Commission survey estimated that 31% of 11–16 year olds in Great Britain had spent their own money on gambling.3 This suggests that participation in gambling is more common among 11–16 year olds than the use of cigarettes, e-cigarettes, alcohol, or illegal drugs.4
Not everyone who drinks alcohol from time to time is addicted to it and, in the same way, not everyone who bets occasionally is addicted to gambling. However, there is no doubt that gambling does cause harm. Indeed, gambling disorders are defined in both the International Classification of Diseases5 (ICD-11) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).6 Characteristics that feature in one or both definitions are given in Box 1.5,6
|Box 1: Features that May Indicate Gambling Disorder or Problem Gambling5,6|
PrevalenceGambling issues impact more people than many would assume. Data from the 2021 Health Survey for England suggest that 0.3% of the adult population engage in problem gambling, and 2.8% are gambling at ‘at-risk’ levels.7 This means that at-risk gambling is more prevalent in English adults than heart failure,8 chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,9 and peripheral arterial disease.10
Moreover, the 2021 edition of an annual YouGov report on gambling in Great Britain found that 2.8% of adult respondents were engaging in problem gambling, based on their responses to the Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI), and that over one-third (36%) of respondents were not accessing any treatment, advice, or support.1 The report also found that around 6% of the adult population considered themselves to be negatively affected by another person’s gambling.1
Effects of Problem Gambling
There are several harms to physical and mental health that are associated with gambling, which are outlined in Box 2.2,11 Beyond the health impact, there is also evidence linking gambling to loss of employment, loss of the ability to concentrate at work, financial difficulties and associated financial crimes such as theft, and social issues such as shame or isolation.2 Estimations of the overall cost of the health impacts of gambling in the UK vary significantly, but they run into the hundreds of millions, possibly even billions.2
|Box 2: Physical and Mental Health Harms Associated With Gambling2,11|
Identification of At-Risk GroupsThere are various risk factors that should be considered when identifying patients who are more likely to be impacted by gambling-related harms. Men are generally more likely to participate in problem gambling than women.2,12 The risk is also higher for people with lower socioeconomic status,12 as well as for people who are in prison.13,14 People in certain careers are also at increased risk of gambling-related harms—these include people working in gambling-related occupations,11 professional athletes,15 firefighters,16 and those who are either in the armed forces17 or are veterans.18 Other risk factors include a family history of gambling disorder, use of drugs or heavy use of alcohol, mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, and being of a Black, Asian, or another minority ethnic background.11
Parkinson’s Disease and Associated Medications
Gambling issues are also associated with certain medical conditions and medications. Most notably, gambling disorders are seven times more common in people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) than in the general population.19,20 Around one-quarter of people with PD have a history of gambling that predates their PD diagnosis, and around 6% of people taking dopamine agonists (such as ropinirole, pramipexole, rotigotine, or apomorphine) develop gambling pathologies.19,21,22 Impulse control issues such as problem gambling often occur up to 4–5 years after starting dopamine agonists, and are also an issue (although less commonly so) with other drugs used to treat PD, such as levodopa.19,22
The diagnosis and management of PD is largely carried out in secondary care, and gambling risk should be taken into account at the point of diagnosis and when starting any medication.19 However, people with PD will see their GP often, so the GP may be the first person that they or their families or carers first come to with concerns about gambling or other impulsive behaviour, so it is important that primary care practitioners know about the risks.19 The following recommendations are notable for primary care:19
- clinicians are advised to undertake a careful risk assessment before prescribing medication for PD, being aware of risk factors such as young age at onset, smoking, a family or personal history of alcohol abuse, or a family history of problem gambling, novelty-seeking behaviour, or drug-induced mania—if any of this information is in a patient’s notes, it would be useful to mention this in an initial referral letter
- consider alternatives to dopamine agonists if the risk is particularly high, such as for a relatively young male patient with a family history of problem gambling or alcohol issues
- reduce dopamine treatment if problem gambling is detected – these decisions should always be made in secondary care and may lead to the drug needing to be stopped
- consider nurse-therapist-led cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in conjunction with stopping medication
- screen all patients with PD for pathological gambling and other impulse control disorders at follow up, using nonstigmatising language
- warn patients and their relatives about the risk of problem gambling and other impulse control disorders (such as binge eating, hyperlibidinous behaviour, or compulsive shopping) when medication is started, and give this information in written form, copied to the patient’s GP.
Enquiries and Brief InterventionsAs with any diagnosis, gambling disorder cannot be identified unless it is asked about. A simple question, such as ‘Are you worried that you are gambling too much?’, can be effective for identifying potential gambling-related issues, and this kind of simple question is increasingly being used in NHS online questionnaires.23
It may be beneficial to view this question as the first point in the framework of Very Brief Advice (VBA), an evidence-based tool that can easily fit into a routine GP appointment and has been shown to help with smoking cessation.24,25 The three parts of VBA, as adapted to gambling, would be as follows:24,25
- Ask—ask the patient a simple question about whether they gamble, and whether they are concerned about it
- Advise—tell the patient that there is help available, and explain how they can get it
- Act—signpost or refer the patient to an appropriate service if they are interested, and ensure that they understand where to access support if they are not interested.
The primary method of assessing the severity of a person’s gambling is with the PGSI (see Box 3),30,31 which is straightforward to calculate in primary care and may help to direct advice and referral. There are nine questions, which all score from zero (never) to three (always).30 A score of eight or above indicates that the person is a problem gambler, with scores of 3–7 indicating moderate risk and 1–2 indicating low risk.30 A zero result indicates someone who gambles with no negative consequences.30
|Box 3: NHS PGSI Questionnaire31|
NHS website. Help for problems with gambling. www.nhs.uk/live-well/addiction-support/gambling-addiction (accessed 19 June 2023).
Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.
This article has used several terms, including ‘gambling disorder’, ‘gambling issues’, ‘gambling-related harms’, and ‘problem gambling’, all of which are used relatively interchangeably in the associated literature. However, certain phraseology, particularly the term ‘problem gambling’, may actually be stigmatising, and clinicians should consider moving away from this kind of wording. Discussing ‘gambling-related harms’ that may be impacting the person and those around them (for example, friends, relatives, and colleagues) is generally a more sensitive approach.
Nevertheless, the term ‘problem gambling’ will not be abandoned easily, as it is used in various reports and diagnostic tools and is even in the title of the main assessment for gambling, the Problem Gambling Severity Index.30
Treatment and Support
Once a problem is identified, treatment options will depend on what is available locally, whether the patient is willing to travel or access help remotely, and the severity of their gambling issues. There are four main treatment routes:31–38
- the voluntary sector, particularly for those with low-to-moderate harm—charitable organisations, such as GamCare, can provide counselling, brief interventions, peer support, and ongoing support to help with prevention of relapse, as well as further counselling after a relapse
- the NHS Primary Care Gambling Service—this is a service in South London, which is run by a multidisciplinary team including mental health nurses, GPs, a consultant psychiatrist, and people with lived experience of gambling-related harms. Patients can self-refer, or a referral can come from a GP or other agency. Sessions may be individual or in a group, and the service also provides aftercare, including relapse prevention and a peer support group. The service can be accessed face to face, on the phone, or online
- secondary care NHS services—in the NHS long term plan, NHS England pledged to open 15 gambling clinics by 2023/2024. As of November 2022, seven have been opened in Leeds, Sunderland, Manchester, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Telford, and London (a national clinic). These services offer various therapeutic options, including psychiatric review, CBT, psychodynamic psychotherapy, couples and family therapy, support groups, and medication
- residential services—these are relatively intense recovery programmes primarily offered by the charity Gordon Moody. They are not free services; however, for those on certain benefits, most of the cost can be covered. The NHS webpage covering problems with gambling signposts to this service.
- the GamCare website, and the National Gambling Helpline
- Gamblers Anonymous, a charity offering various resources and services
- free national debt services, such as StepChange, if debt is an issue
- GamAnon, for those affected by others’ gambling.
SummaryGambling disorders are often overlooked by healthcare professionals, but there are a number of services and resources that a person can use to overcome them. By identifying patients who are at risk or have issues with gambling, primary care practitioners can help them to find the support they need.
HF=heart failure; COPD=chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; PAD=peripheral arterial disease; VBA=Very Brief Advice; PGSI=Problem Gambling Severity Index