What is social prescribing?

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Social prescribing enables GPs, nurses and other primary care professionals to refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services to support their health and wellbeing.

But does it work? And how does it fit in with wider health and care policy?

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What is social prescribing?

Social prescribing, also sometimes known as community referral, is a means of enabling health professionals to refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services. The referrals generally, but not exclusively, come from professionals working in primary care settings, for example, GPs or practice nurses.  

Recognising that people’s health and wellbeing are determined mostly by a range of social, economic and environmental factors, social prescribing seeks to address people’s needs in a holistic way. It also aims to support individuals to take greater control of their own health. 

Schemes delivering social prescribing can involve a range of activities that are typically provided by voluntary and community sector organisations. Examples include volunteering, arts activities, group learning, gardening, befriending, cookery, healthy eating advice and a range of sports.  

Social prescribing is designed to support people with a wide range of social, emotional or practical needs, and many schemes are focused on improving mental health and physical wellbeing. Those who could benefit from social prescribing schemes include people with mild or long-term mental health problems, people with complex needs, people who are socially isolated and those with multiple long-term conditions who frequently attend either primary or secondary health care. 

There are different models of social prescribing being employed across England. Most involve a link worker (other terms such as community connector, navigator and health adviser are also used) who works with people to access local sources of support. For example, at the Bromley by Bow Centre, a community and primary care hub in east London with a long history of social prescribing and other community-focused work, staff work with people, often over several sessions, to help them get involved with local services ranging from swimming lessons to financial advice services. 

Social prescribing can be understood as one of a family of approaches, sometimes called community-centred approaches, which aim to mobilise the power of communities to generate good health.  

Does social prescribing work?

There is a growing body of evidence that social prescribing can lead to a range of positive health and wellbeing outcomes. Studies have pointed to improvements in quality of life and emotional wellbeing, mental and general wellbeing, and levels of depression and anxiety.

For example, an evaluation of a social prescribing project in Bristol from the early 2010s highlighted improvements in anxiety levels and in feelings about general health and quality of life. And a study of a scheme in Rotherham (a liaison service helping people access support from more than 20 voluntary and community sector organisations), showed that for more than 8 in 10 people referred to the scheme who were followed up 3 to 4 months later, there were reductions in NHS use in terms of accident and emergency (A&E) attendance, outpatient appointments and inpatient admissions. Exploratory analysis of the scheme suggested that it could pay for itself over 18–24 months due to reduced NHS use. 

More recent evaluations have pointed to similar opportunities. A community connector scheme in Bradford reported improvements in service users’ health-related quality of life and social connectedness (among other measures). And a programme in Shropshire, evaluated between 2017 and 2019, found that people reported statistically significant improvements in measures of wellbeing, patient activation and loneliness. At three-month follow up, it also found that GP consultations among participants were down 40 per cent compared to a control group. 

While experience – much of it positive – continues to accumulate about social prescribing, there remain weaknesses in the evidence base. Many studies are small scale, do not have a control group, focus on progress rather than outcomes, or relate to individual interventions rather than the social prescribing model. Much of the evidence available is qualitative and relies on self-reported outcomes. 

Determining the cost, resource implications and cost-effectiveness of social prescribing is particularly difficult. Several studies highlight the importance of measuring the wider social value generated through social prescribing, for example, through reducing welfare benefit claims. Again, this can be difficult to measure, and may require a longer-term approach. A recent study found that more than half of the outcomes social prescribing can deliver are not being routinely measured in evaluation frameworks.  

Overall, the evidence available today offers good reason to think social prescribing can deliver benefits for some people. But, as a number of recent meta-analyses and Public Health England have concluded, further work is needed to strengthen the evidence base and clarify expectations of what benefits can be delivered and for whom

How does social prescribing fit in with wider health and care policy?

Social prescribing and similar approaches have been practised in the NHS for many years, with schemes dating back to the 1990s, and some even earlier (the Bromley by Bow Centre was established in 1984). For a long time, though, social prescribing was practised in pockets and largely unnoticed by national NHS bodies.

The past few years have seen an important change: national NHS bodies have embraced social prescribing and committed resource to rolling it out across England. The NHS five year forward view (2014) opened the door with its focus on prevention, its emphasis on the role of the voluntary and community sector, and by citing examples of social prescribing schemes having a positive impact. Subsequently, the General practice forward view (2016) noted the role voluntary and community sector organisations, and particularly social prescribing, can play alongside GP services in offering people community-based support. 

The NHS long-term plan (2019) marked a step change in ambition by incorporating social prescribing into its comprehensive model of personalised care. Composed of six programmes including personalised care planning and personal health budgets, the model aims to enable people, particularly those with more complex needs, to take greater control of their health and care. 

Rather than seeking to directly fund the groups that deliver social interventions, the Long-Term Plan commits funding to the link workers who connect people to the range of support and engagement opportunities – largely run by charity and voluntary organisations – in their local area. The Long-Term Plan set a target that by 2023/24 every GP practice in England will have access to a social prescribing link worker and 900,000 people will be referred by then. 

Primary care networks (PCNs), groupings of GP surgeries serving populations of around 30–50,000 patients, are the channel for this resource and in many cases will host the link-worker service. In 2019, a new five-year contract framework for general practices came into effect, which allows every PCN with a population of 30,000 or more to be reimbursed the costs of employing a link worker (one full-time equivalent and more for PCNs with populations of more than 100,000). By autumn 2020 national NHS bodies were reporting that more than 1,200 link workers were in post.

Alongside funding link workers, national NHS bodies are seeking to grow the infrastructure that supports social prescribing. In 2019, the Department of Health and Social Care made £5 million available to establish a National Academy of Social Prescribing. The academy was officially formed as an independent charity in 2020, with support from a number of partner organisations, such as NHS England and NHS Improvement and Sport England; it plans to focus on raising the profile of social prescribing, building the evidence base and sharing promising practice. It also seeks to support voluntary organisations involved in social prescribing and explore funding partnerships. 

Other government departments have shown a growing interest in the potential of non-clinical interventions in recent years. In 2018, the government’s strategy to tackle loneliness backed the roll-out of social prescribing, and in 2020 the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced funding for a two-year trial of ‘green social prescribing’ – initiatives intended to help people engage with the natural world. 
 

The future of social prescribing

National policy-makers backing community-centred approaches to health, including social prescribing, is welcome. Implementing social prescribing at scale will see more people benefit than has been possible in the past. However, its incorporation into the NHS’s national agenda also brings risks. It remains to be seen, for example, if the ethos of social prescribing will be changed by a more proximate relationship with NHS national policy-makers.   

Looking ahead, it will be important that national roll-out of social prescribing is done in a way that pays careful attention to learning. For example, further insight is needed into the impact of different models of link working, and how link workers can be effectively supported and embedded within a wider multidisciplinary team. There is an opportunity to improve the quality of evaluation and develop a more granular understanding of which approaches from within the range of models deliver value, for whom, and how. National NHS bodies, and the National Academy of Social Prescribing, will have a key role to play in this.  

Partnership between the NHS and the voluntary and community sector is integral to effective health and care; the national roll-out of social prescribing supports that. But its impact over the coming years will also depend on the scale and vitality of the voluntary and community sector, particularly small place-based charities. Covid-19 has seen the voluntary and community sector’s income fall, while the need for the sector has increased. The policy support for social prescribing must be accompanied by adequate funding for those organisations, primarily local charities, receiving social referrals if it is to be sustainable in the long term. 

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Comments

Gemma Jackson

Position
Chair,
Organisation
Thornton Practice PPG
Comment date
07 September 2021

We at Thornton Practice have been Social Prescribing for five years now.PPGs are the corner stone for every GP Practice.They know the pstients, the know their community.They visit schools,supermarkets and are a permanent feature in the waiting room taling to patients.They have a wralth of knowledge and experience and they codt nothing.We produced a green prescription five years ago signposting to every local group and venue for a things from slimming,walking football, loneliness and bereavement to coking for one and baby buggie walks.Wecollated all the info in our Practice booklet which was declared exemplary and a must for all Practices.Why oh why not use the tried and tested resources?

Blaire

Position
Wheelchair Admin,
Organisation
Whittington Health
Comment date
11 January 2021

Thank you Becca.

Really appreciate hearing back and the links.

Kind regards,
Blaire

rshepard

Position
Digital Communications Assistant,
Organisation
The King's Fund
Comment date
23 December 2020

Hi Blaire,

Thanks for getting in touch. I passed this question onto our Library Enquiry Service and they found this website where you can request an information pack about the course, which you may find useful: https://socialprescribingqualification.org.uk/request-course-informatio….

We are not aware of any specific grants for this course but suggest that you contact the course directly as I am sure they get questions about this all the time and will be able to help. You can also see the Government's page on adult learner grants, which you may find helpful: https://www.gov.uk/grant-bursary-adult-learners.

I do hope that is helpful.

All the best,

Becca

Blaire Barrett

Position
Wheelchair Administrator,
Organisation
Whittington Health
Comment date
22 December 2020

I was just wondering if anyone has heard of the following course: Level 3 in Social Prescribing provided by Bromley by Bow, Conexus Healthcare and the University of East London.

If you have heard of it, do you happen to know if there are any Adult Learning Grants that might cover this.

Kind regards,

Moira Johnson

Position
Massage Therapist,
Organisation
Moira's Massage Therapy
Comment date
09 November 2020

I fail to understand why the NHS continue to overlook/dismiss/disregard/ the huge and important role that an army of Alternative and Complementary Therapists could play in the health of the nation. The industry has come a long way in the last 20 years, with highter standards of training and more rigorous Registration Bodies and Training Schools.
An All Party Government Committe recently recommended that we could be used far more as part of the wider range of resources available to the NHS.
As individuals or small organisations, we may lack the ability to provide 'evidence based pratice,' or apply the standard testing measures, but that doesn't mean to say that we are not effective. Why would our clients keep returning and paying? We give time, we listen, we apply a targeted treatment, we follow up and we are relatively cheap!
Moira Johnson

Bridget le Huray

Position
retired nurse / HV,
Comment date
07 November 2020

I am disappointed that no-one has yet mentioned the role of the Health Visitor in this. Hoping there are still some employed out there (?) surely they are the appropriate people, along with occupational therapists, to work across the age groups and to introduce people to the available opportunities where they live? Working in Under 5 clinics it was always useful to help new mothers by introducing them to one another and local opportunities.

Bridget le Huray

Position
Retired Health Visitor,
Comment date
06 November 2020

No-one has yet mentioned Health Visitors (either attached to GP surgeries or geographically based very often in rural areas). Because of their length of service they have a profound knowledge of the locality, what is available and are in an excellent position to introduce folk in need to each other and of support networks.
Just as we did in the Under 5 clinics to support new mothers who in many cases knew nobody local - we could offer support and advice as well as introductions

Mark Metherell

Position
communications director,
Organisation
Consumers Health Forum of Australia
Comment date
20 October 2020

What is the latest on social prescribing in the UK? Commentary seems to peter out in 2018 Is it being used more, or less, now?.Any more research/developments?

Janice Tausig -

Position
volunteer in a variety of areas,
Organisation
North London Hospice (NLH); Healthwatch
Comment date
26 February 2020

If you are still doing your project you may want to call the NLH to see what they are doing over 3 boroughs in London for people who are on palliative care at home but who need a variety of support. There is a fantastic leader Rebecca who runs the Compassionate Neighbours scheme

Peter Black

Position
Lecturer in Vision Science,
Organisation
Univ of Central Lancashire
Comment date
15 January 2020

Sometimes there are lots of facilities available but primary care practitioners such as GPs, pharmacists and optometrists don't know they exist or don't know how to refer in to them. A key example is the two million people the RNIB estimates are living with sight loss in the UK, meaning they can no longer drive (if they ever could) and can't see to do day to day things. Often these people lose their sight but are given no help just a diagnosis, yet many charities exist locally who could give training on day to day living skills, use of IT (ask Alexa, Siri etc), and social interaction, that reduce the feeling of isolation, help people regain independence and reduce the incidence of depression and suicide. I've been working with a registered blind trainer who developed this resource pack of national resources and points to a national database of local resources for people who live with sight loss, visual impairment or blindness.

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