Social prescribing: Making it a reality for everyone

Featured article - 24 November 2016
Kate Langford, Programme Lead: Health and Social Care, Innovation Unit

Head-shot of the author, Kate Langford, Programme Lead: Health and Social Care, Innovation Unit

We know that social connections, purposeful employment, healthy lifestyles and good mental health are inextricably part of people’s health and wellbeing. But there is a growing consensus that our frontline health and care professionals don’t have the tools, skills or time to help people to grow these assets when they are absent. Social prescribing is a way of linking people with health and social care needs with sources of appropriate, non-medical support in the community. Most commonly this is done by a link worker or health trainer who will connect people to any community activities that might support their broader health such as peer support groups, debt counselling or community cooking classes.

Social prescribing is not a new idea. Localities all over the country are working hard to implement this model of support, and make the case for financial investment. In Wigan, the clinical commissioning group is working with the council to develop their Community Link Worker service which aims to improve the health and wellbeing of their population by linking them to local assets. Ways to Wellness in Newcastle is the UK’s first pay-by outcome social prescribing service which is targeted at people with long term conditions. In Rochdale their newly developed #thrive service is putting social prescribing at the heart of an integrated emotional wellbeing service for young people. And where it has been implemented the real life stories show the difference social prescribing can make:

In the two years following Sue’s stroke she saw her GP and specialist regularly, but she suffered with both the physical and psychological after effects. Her husband left his job to become her full time carer, and their savings quickly disappeared. After two years of feeling alone and abandoned, she was referred to a social prescribing service - “a young girl appeared by my bed and asked if I needed anything – all of a sudden things changed”. Since seeing the community link worker Sue has been to a local fall clinic, stroke support group and talked to the local citizens advice bureau. She never knew that there was so much support already available in her community.

The challenge going forwards, however, is how we make social prescribing a reality not just in pioneer sites – but for everyone who could benefit. We need to understand what it would take to deliver social prescribing at scale, and through this to deliver radically better outcomes for the public. From our experience, long term funding is critical. Too often social prescribing pilots are short term, lasting six months to a year. New services and teams need much longer than this to build relationships with other parts of the system, and to see the impact of the service on outcomes. Learning from others is also critical – too often people start from scratch, but social prescribing pioneers across the country have developed the job descriptions and service specifications that others can adapt to their local circumstances. Finally, we know that social prescribing requires not just technical change but cultural change - professionals need to see and feel the impact of social prescribing before they can embrace a mindset that gives them new responsibilities for the wider social determinants of people’s health.

Watch Innovation Unit’s webcast bringing together panellists from three pioneers of social prescribing- Chris Drinkwater from Ways to Wellness, Dan Hopewell from the Bromley-by-Bow Centre and Claire Roberts from Wigan Borough CCG

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