Older man fixing a bike

What is social prescribing – and how can it improve our wellbeing?

If there is one indisputable truth about human beings it is that we are incredibly complicated.

Qa Research LogoThis is one of a monthly series of blogs exploring what we have learned from our research into helping improve services for people with mental health problems, children, young people and families, and those in later life

It’s not that we are the most genetically complex – that prize goes to the marbled lungfish, or have the biggest brains – the sperm whale has pipped us to the post there.

Perhaps what makes us so complex is the interaction between our bodies and our brains and society. So, it stands to reason that if something goes wrong with any of these things it can affect the others.

A report by Citizen’s Advice identified that GPs spend almost a fifth of their consultation time dealing with non-health issues, such as personal relationship problems, housing and unemployment.

Considering that GPs have around ten minutes for a patient consultation, this would seem to be an unsatisfactory exchange for both parties. So if a pill can’t fix it then what can?

A new form of treatment

In a recent piece of research (on behalf of Age UK) we have been speaking to GPs and commissioners of primary care and related services about social prescribing. So, what is social prescribing?

Put simply, a person visiting their GP with a non-medical issue would leave the surgery with a referral to a third party who would point them in the right direction of an activity or service designed to offer support and/or enhance wellbeing.

This is already happening in a number of areas in the UK and in different forms….

The Reading Well programme promotes the benefits of reading for health and wellbeing and includes a range of books on prescription to help people understand specific conditions (e.g. dementia) and also includes mood-boosting books to lift the spirits.

A social prescription can also be practical; befriending schemes such as Age UK’s Men in Sheds provide an opportunity for socially isolated older men to get together and learn new skills such as woodworking.

Cumbria’s Growing Well provides opportunities for people with mental health conditions to work together on a farm providing social benefits but also the improvements to mental health gained from spending time in nature as documented by researchers at Stanford University.

Treating the whole person

In our research, the GPs and commissioners we spoke to were very positive about the idea of social prescribing and felt it was a win-win, but the idea and certainly the term ‘social prescribing’ was new to some and (from a commissioning perspective) was something that still needed to ‘catch on’…

“I think a lot of colleagues of mine, like me, are oblivious to the term social prescribing”

GP commissioner

Essentially, the very simple idea of social prescribing is at the centre of a movement away from a purely medical model of wellness and towards a more holistic model.

This model appreciates that physical, social, and cultural factors work together to make us what we are – not a new idea really, ask any Buddhist –

“to be concerned about a person’s health means to be concerned with the whole person, his (her) physical and mental dimensions, social, familial, and work relationships, as well as the environment in which he (she) lives and which acts on him (her).”


The social prescription gap

Innately we know social prescribing must be good for people, so why aren’t we all on the receiving end?

Previous research has shown that there is strong support amongst GPs for the concept of social prescribing.

In a study carried out by Nesta, out of more than 1,000 GPs surveyed, 90 per cent thought that patients would benefit from social prescriptions. However only nine per cent of the public surveyed have received a social prescription – but over half (59 per cent) said they would like their GP to prescribe them.

From our research, it appears that progress has been made to identify how such approaches could work in practice including simple procedures for GPs to refer people to a third party social prescribing service.

However as with so many interventions that we know make perfect sense, the way we organise and fund our health and social care services can put the brakes on change, specifically the need to prove it works and demonstrate that it can provide a quick return on investment.

Recent reports published by the Kings Fund and IPPR advocate for the introduction of an NHS transformation fund to test new models of care.

This could provide the ideal opportunity to re-write the script and give social prescribing a chance.

Kay Silversides is a Research Manager at Qa Research: kay.silversides@qaresearch.co.uk