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What is social prescribing and what are the benefits?

Guest article, written by Amelia Shabir in Year 12

Within a strategy document, written by the government in October 2018 [1], it has been estimated that three-quarters of GPs are seeing between one and five people a day suffering from loneliness. Additionally, within the study, it was found that around 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month. Unfortunately, this not only puts pressure on the health service to see and treat these people, but also detrimentally affects the individual suffering from isolation. As a result of such statistics, and in order to combat this problem, the NHS has introduced a new method of care: social prescribing. 

Social prescribing, which is also referred to as community referral, is the way in which health and care professionals, such as a GP, nurse or physiotherapist, refers a patient to a local, non-clinical service. This method recognises the effect of social, economic and environmental factors on a person’s wellbeing, and is often prescribed in order to provide a holistic approach to treatment. It also works in supporting individuals in gaining greater control of their own health. Activities that can be prescribed alongside this scheme include gardening, cookery, sports and art classes [2]; however, this list is not exhaustive and there are countless more recreational activities that a person can be advised to undertake. A social prescription can either replace or accompany prescription for medication, as it is prescribed in an attempt to enrich a patients life, ease loneliness and stress, or even help individuals with housing or money issues.

Those given a social prescription are often assigned link workers: a key component of a successful social prescribing scheme. Link workers are tasked with attempting to understand the patient’s needs, both mental and physical, and help refer them to a local community group, or in some cases, establish a group in areas where support is less accessible. They also aid in acting to improve a community’s local support group, assisting them in becoming more sustainable and attainable. 

The benefits of social prescribing are endless. For one, it has been noted that social prescribing can be advantageous to patients’ health. One primary advantage of this scheme is directed towards those suffering from long-term conditions, as it allows them to access support on a daily basis, as opposed to a designated slot with a doctor once every few weeks. This has been reported to lead to positive effects on mental wellbeing, whilst also eliminating the isolation and lack of independence that can arise from the diagnosis of such conditions. By attending support groups it can be argued that a person will feel happier in communicating their needs or feelings without feeling like a burden to those that they live and work around. 

As well as benefits towards a patient, social prescribing is a sure way to reduce the burden on the NHS, namely primary routes of care such as GPs. Patients that often visit GPs for help with their mental health or long term health conditions are now referred to these ‘social prescribed’ schemes which result in an immediate and substantial decrease in appointments with GPs, alleviating both the workload and economic impact of repeat appointments. A study in 2017 from the University of Westminister [3] highlighted the impact that social prescribing can have on the NHS, as it illustrated an average 28% reduction in demand for GP services and a 24% fall in A&E attendance for patients who had been referred to a social prescribing scheme.

As the NHS has been confined to an insufficient budget in recent years, social prescribing has extensively alleviated the cost implications of proper and thorough care, as this can now be provided outside of the NHS. This method is effective in encouraging people to take better care of their own health, and this, in turn, reduces the demand for services, by extension saving money for more vital work or research. Social prescribing has recently resulted in fewer hospital admissions, fewer outpatient appointments and reduced reliance on medical prescriptions.

Initial test-runs of this method of treatment have proved so successful that the Prime Minister has confirmed that by 2023, all GPs in England will be able to use social prescribing to treat their patients for loneliness, this will be provided as an alternative for traditional medicines [1]. In addition to this, some large cities will be partnering up with the Royal Mail in a scheme that will see postal workers checking up on lonely people as part of their usual delivery rounds. As a result of social prescribing, many new companies have also endeavoured to be more supportive and provide greater awareness of their workers’ mental health.

Personally, I believe that the impact this method has had in such a short space of time highlights not only its effectiveness but its potential when running on a much larger scale. At the moment, the primary focus of this scheme is on those suffering from loneliness, however, if this was to be targeted towards a variety of mental and physical disabilities I am sure that the effects and benefits would prove much greater. Social prescribing has been shown to impact the NHS greatly, and though this is favourable, what must also be appreciated is the substantial effect it has had on patients. I am without doubt that this will only grow in the future. 


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