What the doctor ordered: the rise of social prescribing

By Philippa Cahill, Director

When the Government recently launched ‘A connected society, a strategy for tackling loneliness’, it contained a significant commitment to social prescribing (i.e. schemes which work by referring NHS patients to local voluntary and community services, often arts groups).

The government has committed to support all local health and care systems to implement social prescribing connector schemes. It has said that it will work towards having a universal social prescribing offer available in GP practices across the whole country, by 2023.

So what is behind the current interest in social prescribing, which after all is not a new invention?

Well there is a growing body of evidence about the positive health and wellbeing outcomes that may be available from social prescribing programmes. Many studies show improvement in quality of life and wellbeing but critically there is also evidence of a reduction in the use of NHS services, and also therefore a cost saving which is clearly of interest in our struggling health care system.

The evidence from individual schemes is fascinating, but overall there is a need to generate a stronger evidence base (many studies are small scale, relating to individual interventions rather than a wider model, and qualitative, relying on self-reported outcomes). The Social Prescribing Network is doing a fantastic job of collating evidence and making recommendations for how evidence collection can be improved.

But the evidence base is seemingly enough for the Government to start making the right noises. In July this year revealed that it is investing more than £4.5m in 23 new social prescribing programmes. The money is coming from the government’s Health and Wellbeing Fund and will finance the programmes initially for a year. Critics will argue that a longer-term commitment to schemes is required to deliver real benefits to communities.

This week Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, spoke at the ‘Social prescribing: Coming of Age’ King’s Fund think tank. He unveiled plans for a National Academy for Social Prescribing, to champion social prescribing and support GPs in implementation. In his speech he also theorised about the potential to replace drugs in the treatment of long-term conditions, calling out dementia as an example (in remarks followed up by a measured and cautionary response from the Alzheimer’s Society).

The King’s Fund event came close on the heels of the publication of the Government policy paper ‘Prevention is better than cure: our vision to help you live well for longer’, which talks about social prescribing in context of changing the mindset from condition management to health creation.

A number of professional groups have understandably urged government pledges on social prescribing to be seen in context of issues around investment in the health service and particularly in general practice. However there is no question that many people in the arts and health movement will be welcoming the enthusiastic embrace of social prescribing by Hancock. Significant mapping work is scheduled to take place between now and the end of the year, and we will be keeping you posted as the Government embarks on this and the longer journey to delivery on the 2023 promise.