The fact that social prescribing now has its very own awareness day shows how far the movement has come over what seems to be just the last couple of years. It is now being recognised as a proven approach to preventing and addressing many health issues in primary care.
I for one will be joining in the campaign today to highlight the benefits of non-medical support for health and wellbeing and celebrate the fact that so many medics and others now ‘get it’. Just a few years ago, this would certainly not have been the case. But as someone who has more than 30 years’ experience working in the voluntary and health sectors, I know that social prescribing has been around for many years. It is helpful to consider why social prescribing has now become an accepted offer in primary care and what we can do ensure people get the most out of it?
Social prescribing offers people help to connect to social structures and community-based services, rather than giving them medicine to address issues which medicine cannot ‘cure’. It is a much more effective and acceptable way of promoting wellbeing and, therefore, preventing illness. So, for instance, someone living with mild to medium level depression may experience better outcomes in their health if they are signposted and supported to attend a community based social group, rather than being given a prescription for antidepressants.
This approach has become so highly regarded since 2015 that NHS England recently announced the intention to recruit 1,000 social prescribing ‘link workers’ by 2021 to support GPs and reduce pressure on the health service. Whilst I wholeheartedly support this step, I would also urge investment in social prescribing further ‘upstream’, outside of NHS primary care. There is a need to recognise the pivotal role that the charity and voluntary sectors play in providing this kind of support, not to mention the need for people to access these types of low-level interventions to prevent them needing to approach their GP in the first place.
I would argue that if social prescribing is only used in a health setting, then many people who could benefit hugely from it could be missing out. I have seen first-hand how older people really welcome this sort of more informal approach to support them living with more meaning, feeling more confident in accessing community services and networks, maximising their income and remaining well for much longer. Not to mention, they no longer used primary care services as frequently as they previously had.
Social prescribing is used at Imagine Independence as a key way to work with people with mental health and wellbeing issues and other challenges. It is one way that we support people to live full and independent lives. It is something that Imagine Independence has always done, either through specific projects, or in its one to one work with individuals. The real magic of social prescribing lies in how it enables people to co-create a bespoke package of support that really meets their individual needs. By building up their assets for health in this way, and boosting each person’s autonomy, social prescribing promotes health and wellbeing. I am concerned that if it becomes an offer only available and funded via primary care, the magic will stop working.
Imagine Independence is also looking at ways in which social prescribing can be further developed and translated into other environments, such as the field of employment. We have recently partnered with tech for good company, Elemental, to look at how their digital platform could help us use social prescribing more widely and effectively.
For the team at Imagine Independence, it is all about providing that personal package of support, focusing on early interventions that can make a marked difference to people before they become really unwell. Many of Imagine Independence’s service users say that activities like walking football, photography, drama or volunteering, have helped them in maintaining their recovery from ill-health. National Social Prescribing Day must create a platform that ensures we can harness these types of benefits in the best way possible.
I hope you’ll join me in celebrating social prescribing today, but let’s make sure that its higher profile means that more, rather than less, people will benefit from activities and partnerships in their communities without having to go anywhere near a primary care professional.