Social prescribing is becoming a popular concept in healthcare and treatment. GPs in England can prescribe dance classes for people who are lonely. Doctors in Shetland, Scotland can now prescribe nature.

The UK Prime Minister Theresa May has also launched the government’s first loneliness strategy saying that ‘social prescriptions would reduce demand on the NHS and improve patients’ quality of life’.

But what is social prescribing?

How can it help people with their physical and mental health? Is it just another fad that will come and go?

According to the Social Prescribing Network here in the UK, social prescribing ‘is a means of enabling GPs and other frontline healthcare professionals to refer patients to a link worker – to provide them with a face to face conversation during which they can learn about the possibilities and design their own personalised solutions, i.e. ‘co-produce’ their ‘social prescription’- so that people with social, emotional or practical needs are empowered to find solutions which will improve their health and wellbeing, often using services provided by the voluntary and community sector.’

I get that definition, but I’m not sure it’s user friendly to the person who will receive the ‘social prescription’.

So here is my definition of social prescribing

Social prescribing is when a medical or healthcare professional prescribes a non-medical activity which could improve your health and wellbeing. The non-medical activities could meet a range of needs such as the need to be more physically active, eat more healthily, be with people, improve your mood, manage stress, participate in an activity we enjoy doing, feeling productive and more.

All of these non-medical needs can have an impact on your health. For example, when you are living with chronic fatigue or pain, that can impact your ability to work and hence have a knock-on effect on your financial independence, having a roof over your head, etc. The worry causes stress, stress can exacerbate symptoms. Your health can become worse.

Or if you don’t know how to cook and so rely on take-away food outlets near your home and ready-made meals from the supermarket. But your diet has led to weight issues and you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes.

Another person could help you decide which non-medical options would best meet your needs and find them, i.e. the ‘link worker’ mentioned above.

Social prescribing can include learning how to cook healthy meals. Picture of a salad of lettuce, broad beans, asparagus, avocado, chicken, parmesan and croutons

Social prescribing can include learning how to cook healthy meals. A tasty and easy to prepare salad of lettuce, broad beans, asparagus, avocado, chicken, parmesan and croutons.

Social prescribing would aim to help you find non-medical solutions to issues you have

It helps you identify the changes you can make in various parts of your life which will contribute to improving your long-term health and manage the impact of any long-term conditions you have.

For example, what local flexible working opportunities could there be for someone with chronic pain or fatigue. Or a local cooking class to learn how to cook simple healthy meals. Or a gardening club for someone who experiences depression, anxiety and/or loneliness.

The aim is to prevent health issues from getting worse, reduce the financial burden on the NHS especially primary care, i.e. GP service.

All good stuff. There are some very real issues to consider when social prescribing such as whether the activities being prescribed are accessible, do people want to take part in the activities, do they have the confidence to take part, and the cost of such activities when government is cutting investment in local services. Despite that, I feel that social prescribing is a worthy effort.

Social prescribing - Being on or near the water is recognised as being beneficial to our health. A picture of me kayaking in Chichester Harbour.

Being on or near the water is recognised as beneficial to our health. Me kayaking in Chichester Harbour.

But I hope social prescribing won’t be around for long

Shock, horror at reading that, right?

Here is why I think that.

I hope it becomes so popular and embedded in the medical world’s and society’s way of doing things, it becomes the ‘done thing’. In fact, I hope it becomes the go-to option where possible before doctors prescribe medications are medical interventions (when that’s possible).

Through this, society can learn that they have these options to improve their mental and physical health. People learn that these activities become their first go-to options in self-managing their health and wellness.

That is my dream for social prescribing.

However, reality means we may need social prescribing for some time to come

As a society we have done a good job of medicalising everything. In the last century and even in this new one there have been so many advances and many more are on the horizon. The random control trial is the gold standard in research, the aim is to find medications that help and treatments that cure. Life has been extended. That is good.

Society has also gotten used to the medical model. When you’re unwell or injured, you go to the doctor and hope s/he gives you a prescription or recommends another medical intervention to sort the issue out. For some people, they feel it is the doctor’s responsibility to sort the issue and their role is to follow (maybe) the doctor’s instructions. So the patient’s role is passive.

In the process of all this, we have forgotten the non-medical treatments we can use to improve our physical and mental health – a walk in nature, attending activity groups, taking up a new hobby, spending time with people, and regular exercise are just some examples. We may have gotten used to being in a passive role and giving up some of our personal power.

Picture of a man sitting on a sofa saying that the biggest thing he learned was how much he has to do and is responsible for regarding managing his health issue, but that he has to be because he is with his health issue 24/7.

Social prescribing is the reminder that non-medical treatments have just as much value in improving our health as medical treatments.

Social prescribing encourages a holistic focus on treating mental and physical health issues. Not all health issues can be solved by medical intervention alone. Changes in other aspects of your life can make a significant contribution to improved health. And given it is our life, I feel it is up to us to take control and play a significant role in identifying and making those changes. Some of the changes we can make, such as a walk/roll in nature for exercise, are free.

However, I have to remind myself that ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day.’ It will take time to embed this holistic approach to making positive changes to our health in our society. And individual responsibility for it. That is not a small effort. So I think social prescribing will have to be around for some time.

And I am ok with that.

Picture of a woman saying she likes to swim but does yoga in bed when she is having a flare-up and a man saying he has to think about which non-medical interventions would help improve his health and wellbeing.

What about you?

What do you think of social prescribing? Have you experienced it yet during the course of your or a loved one’s medical care? Leave a comment below or email it privately to me using the contact form in the sidebar.

If you are living with a serious health issue or are caring for someone who is, and would like support to find non-medical ways to improve your sense of wellness, have a look at how we can work together and get in touch for a free no obligation consultation.

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© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2018

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