Just what the doctor ordered? Social prescribing and partnership working

ambulance imageThere’s been a lot of discussion recently about social prescribing.

With a number of pilots showing promising results, and more and more areas exploring how such a system could work for their communities, there is no doubt that social prescribing is one of the topics of the moment. But what exactly is social prescribing, and what implications does it have for partnership working? 

What’s the medicine?

Social prescribing simply means a programme which links patients to non-medical support in their community.

Individuals might be suitable for social prescribing if, for instance, they have a chronic physical or mental health problem or they belong to a group which is particularly at risk, such as a recently bereaved older person or a newly arrived immigrant. 

Social prescribing is about recognising that a number of social and economic factors – isolation, an inactive lifestyle, benefits and debt issues – impact on the health and wellbeing of individuals.

Busy health care professionals do not necessarily have the resources or expertise to tackle these issues, so social prescribing draws on the resources in the wider community.

Social prescribing comes in many shapes and sizes. The activities offered differ according to what’s available and the target patient group, but can include gardening and horticulture, formal education, creative activities, weight loss and exercise programmes and advice and information.

There’s also a range of models of how social prescribing works in practice, including who can refer patients, the mix of one-to-one and online support and monitoring and evaluation systems. 

Many of the activities that are likely to be prescribed under this system are often be run by voluntary and community sector (VCS) organisations for their local community.

As a result, social prescribing offers a number of opportunities for these organisations to take advantage of.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

People with happy and active social lives have better health than people who don’t. The evidence in this area is stark – a 2007 study found that  subjective well-being increases life expectancy by seven and half years.

Of course the needs in each particular case will vary – some people will benefit from meeting new people in a stimulating environment, while others want to gain new skills or access advice in a particular area.

In all cases though, social prescribing has the potential to empower individuals to make choices that give them more control over their own health. And what’s good for individuals is good for the system as a whole.

Offering interventions when people are struggling to cope with long term illnesses or are at a particularly difficult point in their life means that person is less likely to have to rely on expensive care at a later stage. This helps the appropriate allocation of limited healthcare resources.

How the voluntary and community sector can make the most of the moment

Amid the current buzz, it’s important to remember that social prescribing has been happening for a number of years under different names. To give just one example, “Creative Alternatives” in Sefton offers creative activities to people experiencing mild to moderate depression, stress or anxiety, and has been operating since 2006.

That said, as voluntary organisations build relationships with their local clinical commissioning groups (CCGs), now is a particularly good time to be thinking about social prescribing.
 
By tackling wider social and economic factors which impact on wellbeing, the sector can demonstrate how integral it is to ensuring the good health of the community.

In the context of a tough economic climate, it can also provide real value in helping CCGs think creatively about how to relieve the pressure on resources.

How can the Compact help to support social prescribing?

It is important not to underestimate the practical considerations that need to be taken into account to ensure that social prescribing programmes are effective and sustainable. These include:

  • How referrals are made and who is responsible for them,
  • Who the target patient groups are,
  • How to keep information on services up to date and accessible,
  • How evaluation and record keeping is carried out, and much more.

As a matter of course, social prescribing brings together a wide variety of different organisations that need to work in partnership to achieve the health and wellbeing outcomes they’re aiming for.

This extends beyond local voluntary sector infrastructure and the local authority and will likely include others whose work is relevant to public health: such as CCGs, individual GPs, colleges and local businesses as well as community groups and smaller local charities.

Unlocking the potential of social prescribing is dependent on productive relationships which bring together old and new partners.

That is where the Compact can be so useful. Local Compacts can enable organisations working together to deliver social prescribing activities – they are a way of establishing common goals and shared principles.

By acting as a framework for what good engagement looks like, and enabling effective programmes to be developed collaboratively, the Compact helps different organisations work better together – ultimately resulting in healthier and happier communities.

Where can I find out more about social prescribing?

 

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