A social-prescribing programme in Shropshire, which was evaluated by the University of Westminster between 2017 and 2019, for example, found that people’s sense of wellbeing and loneliness improved as a result. At a three-month follow-up, the scheme’s leaders also found that GP appointments among participants had fallen by 40% compared to a control group.
A similar scheme in Bradford reported improvements in people’s health-related quality of life and sense of social connection. And initial analysis of a national social prescribing programme suggested that it could pay for itself over 18 to 24 months due to reduced NHS use, The King’s Fund has said.
NHS England recently committed to referring at least 900,000 people to social prescribing services by 2023/2024, saying: “This is the biggest investment in social prescribing by any national health system, and legitimises community-based activities and support alongside medical treatment as part of personalised care.”
It also quotes a survey that found 59% of GPs think social prescribing can help reduce their workload.
However, a briefing by the Welsh parliament published last month, concluded that the quality of evidence on the concept “is not robust and as yet, the evidence that social prescribing delivers cost savings over operating costs is not fully proven”.
Nursing Times magazine agreed that “social prescribing is viewed intuitively as having a benefit, but reviews conclude that evidence lags behind its implementation”.
Different models of social prescribing are currently in place across England. The majority involve a social-prescribing link worker, who may also be called a community navigator, community connector or support broker.
First introduced by the NHS in 2019, link workers liaise with family doctors and other health workers to understand why a patient is seeking help in the first place. They then provide the patient with personal support, likely in the form of helping them “to get involved with activities such as sports teams, cooking classes or social clubs, or taking up life skill courses to improve their wellbeing”, says the NHS.
According to NHS England, there are various ways in which a patient may be referred to a social-prescribing link worker from their local area, for example by their GP, pharmacy, a hospital discharge team or by a social worker. People can also self-refer.
In August 2020, NHS England announced that it was recruiting a “growing army” of link workers “to combat loneliness and isolation fuelled by coronavirus”.
Link workers have been “front and centre” of the NHS’s Covid-19 response, supporting vulnerable people “with everything from accessing vital medicine to relieving loneliness during the lockdown”, according to Nikki Kanani, a London-based GP and the NHS’s medical director for primary care.
As England enters the next stage of the pandemic – where we must learn to adapt to life with the virus and begin to process the impact of the last 18 months – social prescribing is likely to become a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people, as well as our overstretched health system.