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.

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


What is social prescribing?

Social prescribing, sometimes referred to as community referral, is a means of enabling GPs, nurses and other primary care professionals to refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services.

Recognising that people’s health is determined primarily 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.

Social prescribing schemes can involve a variety of activities which 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.

There are many different models for social prescribing, but most involve a link worker or navigator who works with people to access local sources of support. The Bromley by Bow Centre in London is one of the oldest and best-known social prescribing projects. Staff at the Centre work with patients, often over several sessions, to help them get involved in more than 30 local services ranging from swimming lessons to legal advice.

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

Does social prescribing work?

There is emerging evidence that social prescribing can lead to a range of positive health and well-being outcomes. Studies have pointed to improvements in areas such as quality of life and emotional wellbeing, mental and general wellbeing, and levels of depression and anxiety. For example, a study into a social prescribing project in Bristol found improvements in anxiety levels and in feelings about general health and quality of life. In general, social prescribing schemes appear to result in high levels of satisfaction from participants, primary care professionals and commissioners.

Social prescribing schemes may also lead to a reduction in the use of NHS services. A study of a scheme in Rotherham (a liaison service helping patients access support from more than 20 voluntary and community sector organisations), showed that for more than 8 in 10 patients referred to the scheme who were followed up three to four months later, there were reductions in NHS use in terms of accident and emergency (A&E) attendance, outpatient appointments and inpatient admissions. The Bristol study also showed reductions in general practice attendance rates for most people who had received the social prescription.

However, robust and systematic evidence on the effectiveness of social prescribing is very limited. 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. Researchers have also highlighted the challenges of measuring the outcomes of complex interventions, or making meaningful comparisons between very different schemes.

Determining the cost, resource implications and cost effectiveness of social prescribing is particularly difficult. The Bristol study found that positive health and wellbeing outcomes came at a higher cost than routine GP care over the period of a year, but other research has highlighted the importance of looking at cost effectiveness over a longer period of time. Exploratory economic analysis of the Rotherham scheme, for example, suggested that the scheme could pay for itself over 18–24 months in terms of reduced NHS use.

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.

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

Social prescribing and similar approaches have been used in the NHS for many years, with several schemes dating back to the 1990s, and some even earlier (the Bromley by Bow Centre was established in 1984). However, interest in the model has expanded in the past decade or so. More than 100 schemes are currently running in the UK, more than 25 of which are in London.

Social prescribing was highlighted in 2006 in the White Paper Our health our care our say as a mechanism for promoting health, independence and access to local services. The objectives of social prescribing also support the principles set out in subsequent NHS policy documents, including the NHS five year forward view (2014), which encourages a focus on prevention and wellbeing, patient-centred care, and better integration of services, as well as highlighting the role of the third sector in delivering services that promote wellbeing. More recently, the General practice forward view (2016) has also emphasised the role of voluntary sector organisations – including through social prescribing specifically – in efforts to reduce pressure on GP services. In addition, social prescribing contributes to a range of broader government objectives, for example in relation to employment, volunteering and learning.

Although the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence does not provide guidance on social prescribing specifically, some of its guidelines relating to mental health include initiatives that could be described as social prescribing activities. There is also an increasing amount of guidance on social prescribing available for commissioners and others in the NHS and local government, as well a new Social Prescribing Network set up to provide support and share practice on social prescribing at a local and national level. In June 2016, NHS England appointed a national clinical champion for social prescribing to advocate for schemes and share lessons from successful social prescribing projects.

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Shaun Steiner-…

Healthcare Assistant,
Comment date
01 February 2018

A social prescribing group helped me when my GP couldn't/wouldn't. (They couldn't even offer me psychotherapy, as there are no NHS psychotherapists in our borough.) I had severe problems last year (have schizophrenia, depression, binge eating disorder and possible hoarding disorder, and am also autistic.) I asked my GP (once) and a primary care mental health worker (twice) to refer me for an Eating Disorders Team assessment. Neither did. It was a member of First For Wellbeing staff who told me I could self-refer (no NHS staff did), and I finally got the help I needed. She assisted me with accessing support with employment skills (want to change my job), weight management and information on finding support for the emotional and sexual abuse that I haven't been able to deal with or properly disclose for over 30 years.

David Grant

Comment date
19 March 2018

As with the other "Cure all" therapy "CBT" (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) No one seems able to explain "How it Works"! As a retiree with a medical background, this causes me concern. We would not be able to carryout any form of invasive treatment unless we could clearly describe: A/ The method to carryout the procedure. B/ The outcome expected.
If anyone has the courage to attempt to explain the mechanism of "Social Proscription" I would be delighted to hear from you. This also applies to CBT.



Brenda Lammi

Comment date
27 March 2018

Having read this and other articles, and listened to an interview on Social Prescribing, I’m absolutely baffled on how this entire movement is claiming to be ‘new’ and ‘innovative’. Occupational Therapy has been researching, advocating and prescribing meaningful activity (or occupations) for over 100 years. We know, and have researched, why it works, how it works, and the best way to prescribe it (client-centredness). These professionals should be collaborating with occupational therapy and not reinventing the wheel.


Comment date
24 April 2018

I think you are misunderstanding the term "prescription". Social prescribing refers to providing a service for GPs to refer people to if their problems are not necessarily medical related. As a former medic you will be aware that people present at the GP when their problem really is loneliness, or depression caused by financial stress. So with social prescribing, a GP will refer the patient to a link worker who puts the patient in touch with services in the voluntary that can support them through their non-medical issues, e.g. housing support, physical fitness, social clubs and organisations, legal services etc. What the research is starting to show is that demands on primary care fall when a patient's overriding issues are addressed and that medical prescribing also falls. Social prescribing is not a "treatment" like CBT, it is finding a social solution for the challenges that people face in life so they are less reliant on health professionals.

mike harvey

retired pharmacist,
Comment date
30 April 2018

Our Rotary Club in Chichester has been running a scheme to alleviate loneliness called "Bridging Generations".It brings together isolated people and Health and Social Care students at the local FE College.Meetings for converstaion take place every fortniht in term time -only cost is for some required transport. contact me to find out more Mike harvey Chichester Priory Rotary Club

Katherine Rice

Retired hospital doctor, now student of Social and Therapeutic Horticulture,
University of Coventry
Comment date
17 May 2018

I would like to understand how social prescribing is funded. When a GP 'prescribes' an intervention/activity, does funding go from the GP/CCG to the organisation providing the intervention? It seems unrealistic to expect all of the costs to be met by the voluntary sector as demand is potentially so great and many worthy projects are failing due to lack of funds. Even if projects are supported by volunteers, there are still capital and running costs to be covered. Unless funding does follow the client/patient, I think the term prescribing is misleading because a normal prescription for medication/physiotherapy etc would incur some sort of cost to the commissioner. And if funding does follow the patient, how much is it and is there a limit? I would love some clarity on this.


OT Student,
Comment date
26 May 2018

Hi David,

Although not an expert, I am an Occupational Therapy Student. Unfortunately, social prescribing is not new and has been researched thoroughly and carried out by Occupational Therapists for 100s of years. Occupational Therapist's understand the importance of Occupation's and meaningful activities; one of the ways we use occupations to improve in health and independence is through the use of social groups such as knitting (or literally anything that is meaningful to the person Gym, walking, having a meal with friends, computer games). Social Prescribing Is not a new concept but has just been re-named as social prescribing, if you truly want to understand social prescribing and how it works read occupational therapy literature! I do agree with you that GPs should be able to explain how and why it works and therefore Just as Brenda Lammi said, the NHS and those offering Social Prescribing should be working with Occupational Therapists who do this day in and day out, know the importance of occupations to a persons physical and mental well-being and will be able to explain how it works and the importance of being able to carry out your occupations as well as a whole 100 years worth of evidence and case studies to back us up.

Roderic Morgan

Service User Consultant,
Comment date
05 June 2018

I think that Social Prescribing works very well in Leeds. It allows service users to get access to things which can help them in their recovery. The referral process is easy and efficient.

Michael Lingard

Comment date
31 July 2018

70 years ago at the inception of the NHS , a group from what was called The Peckham Experiment approached the government to propose establishing Health Promoting centers throughout the country based on the twenty years experience in Peckham. The doctors who organized the experiment were investigating the origins of health. All 1000 participants in the Peckham Experiment had improved health without significant medical aid. The conclusion was that health was founded on “becoming whole” and the key to this was the family mother and father in a supportive community. The Family Clubhouse of the Peckham Experiment provided such a rich environment. This was really the early pilot study of “Social prescribing “ but the difference was that the doctor didn’t prescribe, it was the families who chose this “prescription”. The parcipants were encouraged to take responsibility for their own lives and their own health, totally the opposite to what 70 years of the NHS has created, a society that sees their doctor as being responsible for their health.

Pearl Baker

Carer/Independent Mental Health Advocate and Adviser,
Comment date
03 August 2018

Social Prescribing is a 'WORD' but actually means receiving the SUPPORT and HELP you are 'assessed' as needing to help 'cope' with your disability, and improve your 'being' and 'inclusion' into 'society.

If you suffer from Schizophrenia, it is NOT that easy to refer anywhere. It takes years, months of 'therapy' based on your illness, disability to even start the process of 'inclusion' based on Confidence.

I started a 'Walking' Group for three Adults, who suffer from a long term Mental Illness we have lunch then walk, one has been provided with a 'fit-bit' to encourage 10.000 steps a day. it is a slow process, but when you have been left isolated in your accommodation for years rehabilitation is a slow process.

Steven walker

Community Interest Care Farm,
Green Saplings CIC
Comment date
28 October 2018

Hello we are taking on people from Worcestershire who have been recommended social prescribing at our care farm in Great Witley. We have 110 acres of farmland wnd woodlands and we have a polytunnel and market garden and various animals with use to teach with on the farm.

Sheena Wight

Occupational therapy manager,
NHS Lothian, Midlothian H&SC Partership
Comment date
20 November 2018

As an occupational therapist I totally agree with this comment.
And would like to add - the landscape has changed significantly and I think third and voluntary sector have a massive role to play in this area of really important work. I believe occupational therapy staff should be used for teaching and consultancy work with third sector and also provide a direct fast tracked referral for those individual clients who require occupational therapy assessments is those who have the most complex, enduring and multiple long-term conditions. The need for occupational therapists to be based in Primaty Crae has never been so urgent and important!

Richard Mole

Project Manager,
Birmingham Centre for Arts Therapies
Comment date
22 November 2018

No this is not a 'new' concept. We have worked hard over the last 25 years implementing arts therapies and arts in health intervention without any statutory financial backing/support. Because we are a small charity we can not be heard. It certainly can be left to the knowledgeable and experienced CVS to pick up this work, but not without being properly supported financially. Like everything I fear that if funding is ever made accessible it will head straight to the 'big boy charities' without anything trickling down to us grassroots organisations that have been delivering community activities for years. If this is about partnership delivery then it MUST be in partnership - and these 'go to charities' can not work in silos and with usual suspects. This is my experience anyway! Buy in has to come from the medical sector too and should form part of their initial training. It is a fantastic concept.

Colina Slade

private schoo;
Comment date
28 January 2019

I am sure that this works - how ever I am not sure that it can work in rural communities, often where polity and isolation causes much of the ill health you are referring to. Even if there were facilities in the local big village - town there would not be the transport or this would make it to expensive so inaccessible

jennifer smith

Comment date
11 February 2019

I am currently doing a research project on social prescribing is there any more information from people on this thread that could help me out?
i.e links to relevant journals or reports ect
much appreciated

S L Bennett

A Lincolnshire Parish Council
Comment date
10 March 2019

I live in a rural community not far from Lincoln and 'social prescribing' is one of the elements of NHS care being put forward as a solution to the chronic shortage of GPs in our (as well as many other) areas. We currently face the building of hundreds and thousands of new homes in our area, while in parallel watching GP surgeries close. On the whole I am positive about what social prescribing could achieve, but it does assume that we make sure we invest appropriately in other infrastructure and take much better care of our environment.
As a means of getting people healthy - as occupational therapists have pointed this out elsewhere in this section - encouraging greater activity is tried and tested. It is a good thing to shift emphasis onto patients taking charge of their own health, but it is also likely to create pressure for more volunteers to fill gaps where volunteering seems to be papering over cracks in many other areas of public service. Local planning authorities should be putting more of the S106 monies/community levy monies directly into healthcare and think more carefully about implications for health infrastructure before permissioning new developments.

Fran Day

Service user,
Any you wish to choose.
Comment date
15 July 2019

I totally disagree with the so called organised way of transition from NHS mental health, to social prescribing.
I am aware of the process is not an easy task, but I do know that, patients/service users are left in limbo, until the transfer is finalised, and the person is settled into a professionally run access and support service.
I have had quite a few issues with this, due to the limbo status.
I have been assured that I had been allocated a mental health support worker, but I heard nothing, for weeks.
I waited all day, once, because I was told that the worker was going to ring me to make an appointment.
Granted, I missed my appointment, due to my stroke fatigue and memory problems.
I have made contact with her on the phone a few times and, although, she is polite and caring, but has limitations, due to my impending assessment, until she sees me in person.
I went through a few things with her one day and she told me that she would talk better, when we meet. Needless to say, I have to be observed by another colleague for three sessions, so, now, I am feeling, lost, uncertain of what is going to happen about my multiple issues, mainly my living situation and my stroke impact. Not the, physio therapy or mental health part, but, my socialising skills and, being around groups, due to one incident, within a therapy group. Obviously, I had to go away and get back into society and rebuild your trust and confidence again.
That moment distroyed me. I am supposed to go to a mental health support centre, to socialise, but I just can't click into place with it now, due to cutbacks. I must say that the staff are brilliant, it's the reduction of services that used to be offered, to help with confidence, etc.
Now, I have a brilliant stroke support group to go to, run by survivors, themselves, but due to the different changes that I've encountered during my time there.
So. I'm extremely sorry for the negative feedback, but I have no happy feelings towards this social prescribing.

Sharon Steed

Founder, Chair & Treasurer,
Llandudno Fibromyalgia Support Network
Comment date
30 July 2019

I launched Llandudno Fibromyalgia Support Network (shortened to LFSN for online ease) in April 2019.

We meet on a regular basis, generally once per week, and we invite local services to demonstrate their services and talk about the benefits of their services to Fibromyalgia and similar debilitating conditions.

At least 7 local members have said their lives have been transformed as a result of joining LFSN, we laugh, we share, we support, there is nothing we cannot do together as a group, everybody is made welcome.

We've had a pamper night (thanks to Boots, Llandudno), we've had meals out, a couple of members were talking about going on holiday together, there literally is no limit to the support available.

Our website link, should you need it : lfsn.org.uk

Please do keep in mind, I too suffer with Fibromyalgia, so if I haven't been able to update the website, please cut me some slack haha.

Louisa Radice

Comment date
28 August 2019

How can you get a social prescription if you can't even get a face-to-face appointment?

Barbara Posner

Comment date
10 January 2020

Why don't they just look up the local 'voluntary sector services' on the internet then self refer( ie help with benefits, job applications etc) just to find as I have that these services have been cut down to the bare bone and the ' social presciber' has none of the knowledge and experience to help them themselves.

Peter Black

Lecturer in Vision Science,
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.

Janice Tausig -

volunteer in a variety of areas,
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

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