Can social prescribing help the health service?

Social prescribing allows your GP, nurse or other healthcare professional to prescribe non-clinical activities to support or improve your health. It can involve a variety of activities which are often provided by voluntary and community sector organisations.

The idea started more than a decade ago with some GPs prescribing walks or gym sessions to patients with health conditions like obesity or high blood pressure which could benefit from exercise.

More recently, new schemes have sprung up to cover a wider range of ‘prescriptions’ for  volunteering, arts activities, group learning, gardening, befriending, cookery, healthy eating advice and a range of sports designed to tackle things like loneliness, low mood and weight issues.

Social prescribing has the potential to address many of the factors that perpetuate illness, decrease quality of life and add to health care costs – such as social isolation, inactivity and smoking. It has expanded the options available to GPs who have patients requiring financial, housing and other social advice alongside their medical care.

In a piece published recently in BMJ Opinion, a health service research expert, Dr Husk, from the University of Plymouth warns that, in order for social prescribing to reach its full potential and make a true difference to patients, more needs to be done to understand what works, for whom, and in what circumstances.

Dr Husk highlights the potential of social prescribing and draws attention to instances where it has not achieved what it set out to do. An example is the exercise referral scheme (ERS), described by Dr Husk as “all but a panacea a decade ago”. He states that, because ERS were adopted across the UK before its effectiveness was properly assessed, the outcome was that for a substantial number of patients ERS offered a benefit that was not optimised.

He said: “This sits at the heart of what needs to be done with social prescribing. Greater attention needs to be paid to how it can address individualisation and be responsiveness to the needs of different groups of patients and care providers – one size does not necessarily fit all.”

More research into the delivery and effectiveness of social prescribing could not be more timely – there is a policy push in the UK to see social prescribing as part of the ‘new models of care’ which aim to contribute to health creation and reduce pressure on the NHS through better healthcare utilisation.

Dr Husk continued: “We must seize the opportunity we have now to develop a programme of research alongside the implementation of social prescribing, so as to understand which patients can accrue benefits – such as improved social functioning, disease prevention and fewer admissions – and from which interventions.”

He also suggests that there needs to be a deepened understanding of each patient’s “nuanced interactions” with the professionals and advisors they encounter on their social prescription journey.

He added: “If we want to harness the great work now being undertaken in community and primary care settings up and down the UK, we need to understand what works in social prescribing, for whom, and in what circumstances.”