Putting "social prescribing" in the hands of the patient

The NHS wants community organisations to help patients with social problems
The NHS wants community organisations to help patients with social problems

Gardening groups and art classes are amongst the activities which patients in Lancashire could soon be prescribing for themselves, as part of a plan to better connect community organisations with people who could benefit from their services.

A digital directory of voluntary and faith groups is being drawn up in an attempt to provide practical and emotional support for those individuals whose needs are not medical.

A meeting of Lancashire County Council’s health scrutiny committee heard that around one in five GP appointments in England is filled by patients whose problems are primarily classed as social.

So-called “social prescribing” is already happening across Lancashire, but largely depends on a referral from a GP.

Under the proposed system, patients – who could also be suffering from the effects of long-term or multiple conditions – will be able to directly access a variety of relevant groups.

“Directories are out of date very quickly and are not used by the people who need them,” said Linda Vernon, digital leader at Healthier Lancashire and South Cumbria.

“So there’ll be a single version [of the information], but lots of different digital products that can then [promote] the data.”

Members were told that an increased use of digital social prescribing services would free-up time for healthcare professionals to deal with those who prefer face-to-face contact – or have a medical problem which requires it.

The directory is expected to be available within 12 months. Meanwhile, for patents referred by their GP, link workers will help them to negotiate the different organisations which are open to them.

However, there was a warning that the community groups on which the new system will rely, might not be able to cope with an influx of new users.

“The grants which councils have been able to give to the voluntary sector have been reduced significantly,” committee member and Preston city councillor David Borrow said.

“I’m concerned that we are building up expectations and that the organisations [to which patients will be referred] will not be sustainable, he added.

Lancashire County Council’s champion for older people, Joan Burrows, called for health and social care organisations to provide “core funding” for voluntary groups and the committee heard that a survey of 400 organisations is currently underway to assess their “readiness and willingness” to get involved with the scheme.

“We’re conscious that while the healthcare system would like to prescribe more patients to community services, [the groups] may be happy that they have already got [enough] people who need their services,” Linda Vernon said.

The NHS in Lancashire and South Cumbria is aiming to achieve 28,000 community referrals by social prescribing within the next four years. If that target is met, the health service forecasts that there will be a 14 per cent drop in GP appointments and 12 per cent fewer A&E attendances.

Research into the effectiveness of social prescribing is mixed, but County Cllr Steve Holgate said he was an example that the concept could work.

“I wanted to reverse my type 2 diabetes and I pretty much had the diet and lifestyle changes nailed down – but in terms of the motivation to go to the gym, that was not the case.

“My GP prescribed some gym sessions for about 12 weeks and my 18 stone is now a little over 14 stone – that’s social prescribing at its best,” he said.