What evidence supports social prescribing?

Social prescribing is the topic of the moment, and is being advocated more than ever by many national organisations. It allows GPs to increase their ability to provide a more personalised care for people’s physical and mental health through social interventions, which runs in line with the NHS’s Long Term Plan to boost ‘out-of-hospital’ care, and to dissolve the historic divide between primary care and community health services. With roughly 20% of GP appointments being for non-clinical issues such as social isolation or financial struggles, social prescribing offers a new approach to support those in need of social connections in a time when healthcare services are under increasing pressure.

In a recent report from the RSE’s Post-Covid Future Commission, it was concluded that almost 80% of GPs prescribing antidepressants reported doing so despite believing that a non-clinical treatment would be more suitable. The report also states that non-medical methods have the potential to alleviate pressure on the NHS in the wake of COVID-19. So, what is the proof to support this idea and to show that social prescribing works?

Although research into social prescribing is in its early days, there is a growing body of evidence to show that it improves wellbeing for people and allows them to have more control over their lives. More specifically, in a 2013 review by Bristol in which a local Bristol-based GP described social prescribing as “like having an extra pair of arms”, improvements to anxiety levels and to feelings about general health and quality of life were highlighted as a result of social prescriptions. In addition to this, recent evaluations have concluded that social prescribing programmes lead to reduced pressure on the NHS and its services. In the University of Westminster’s 2017 Evidence Summary, it was identified that for those with social prescriptions, there were 28% fewer GP appointments, 24% fewer A&E attendances as well as fewer hospital bed stays. Based on exploratory analysis of these statistics, a Rotherham study suggested that a social prescribing scheme could pay for itself over 18–24 months.

Clearly, this evidence offers good reason to believe that social prescribing can be beneficial to individuals as well as to the NHS and to healthcare providers. However, as Public Health England states, more research is needed to strengthen the evidence base and to clarify expectations of what benefits can be delivered. One reason behind the limited evidence is that information is not being recorded and published. As a result, NHS England is working with social prescribing programmes to build the evidence base and to encourage local areas to consistently measure impact. This includes impact on the person receiving support, on the health and care system and on community groups receiving referrals.

Social Rx can support this evidence gathering through population-level data and analysis. Using our range of dashboards and reports, social prescribing teams can better understand and record improvements in people’s wellbeing as well as the impact and outcomes of their programme. This understanding can help to drive programme improvements, and to show why social prescribing is the future of the healthcare system.

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