Social prescribing - a new way to think about healthcare

When an elderly lady visits her GP for a routine check-up, the GP notices that she’s been reading a novel while she was in the waiting room. As they talk about her health conditions, as well as her day-to-day life, her GP suggests that she join a newly established book club at her local library. The lady, who lives by herself, brightens at the idea, and takes down the details of a local council worker who can give her more information.

In another instance, a young man whose diabetes is compounded by his weight gain, is told by his doctor that the local gym has a promotion going, with the first month free for new members. He has been thinking of joining a gym for a while, and this is just the nudge that he needs. He agrees for his GP practice to pass his details onto the gym so they can follow-up with him directly.

A single mother, struggling with depression and anxiety, is told about a local mums’ group by a maternal and child health nurse. As a single parent who is new to the area, she has limited opportunities to socialise and is hopeful that she may make new friends at the mums’ group, but her anxiety means she is unlikely to follow-up on her own. The nurse puts her in contact with a care coordinator who will support her introduction to the group and help her make arrangements to attend her first session.

Social prescribing – a transformative way of supporting health and wellbeing

In all of the above instances, these health professionals were practicing a concept known as ‘social prescribing’ – a means by which GPs, nurses and allied healthcare professionals refer patients with a range of social, emotional or practical needs to community services or activities that address these issues.

This kind of “social prescription” is currently gaining recognition internationally, particularly in the United Kingdom. It is based on the premise that the health system can play a greater part in health promotion and prevention in addition to providing care for those who are ill – particularly in primary healthcare, where an individual’s first point of contact is often their GP, practice nurse or allied healthcare worker.

Social prescribing schemes may involve a range of activities provided by voluntary or community organisations such as arts activities, meetup groups, volunteering and sports activities. For instance, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) is currently exploring a potential collaboration with social running organisation Parkrun, depending on GP interest.

The need for social prescribing

Health and wellbeing do not happen in a vacuum and are more than just access to medical care. Factors such as education, income, housing and nutrition play significant roles in our mental and physical health, and in our increasingly fragmented society we are realising that loneliness and exclusion have a great impact on our health and wellbeing. Estimates suggest that around 20 per cent of patients consult their GP for advice or support with what are primarily social problems.

Besides improving health outcomes, the social prescribing pathway attempts to create a system shift by directing people away from expensive and over-utilised medical services such as emergency and hospital care, to less expensive community supports that may prevent the need for such acute care.

While it complements, but does not replace, essential primary medical care, social prescribing encourages people to take an active role in managing their own health and healthcare, creating a space for greater collaboration between the health system and the community.

Social prescribing in Australia

The Consumers Health Forum of Australia (CHF) is partnering with the RACGP to start a discussion about the merits of social prescribing and how it could be supported in Australia.

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Consumers Health Forum