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Social prescriptions – a new way to care?

Posted on 28/05/2015

It’s a term that has been rolling around in the media for the last couple of years, but what is ‘social prescribing’? Simply, it is the ‘prescription’ of non-medical support within a person’s community instead of or alongside medication to treat a range of physical and mental illnesses and issues. It can help treat those suffering from isolation, bereavement following the loss of a partner, depression and those who would benefit from a more active, healthy lifestyle. It also helps to reduce strain on NHS services, as the projects are based in the community and run by third parties and volunteers.

It is certainly not common practice at present, though there have been some significant trials in some areas. For example, Age Concern Support Services (Yorkshire and Humber) had a pilot project working with GP practices in the area, referring patients to various Age UK services, such as theatre trips, befriending services, Fit as a Fiddle classes and more, with the hope to reduce isolation and improve mental wellbeing of older people. You can find out more about the project here.

Another project, which came to the end of a six-month trial earlier in 2015, was a collaboration between GP practices, care homes and day care centres, and Furry Tales, which provides animal-assisted activities for older people. The trial provided animal-handling and nature-based sessions for older people suffering from isolation or those with dementia. The trial showed great results, with good and repeated turnouts, and improved social interaction. The full report goes into more detail. 

The aim of social prescribing is to tackle problems without medicating where possible, and also the prevention of future problems. For example, those who suffer health problems due to an inactive or unhealthy lifestyle could be referred to suitable exercise classes or weight-loss initiatives, helping them to improve their lifestyle and reduce the risk of further issues. Similarly, those who suffer from isolation, in particular elderly people who live alone, might be referred to services that provide day trips or hobby groups. By tackling isolation early on, it could mean a reduction in later depression.

Social prescribing isn’t as modern as it may sound. The term might be new, but there has long been community-based services and projects that work on the same basis. It is knowing about and accessing these services that has been a larger problem, and GP referral could provide that essential link.

According to a report in The Guardian, a social prescription project in Rotherham, a joint collaboration between the NHS clinical commissioning group (CCG) and Volunteer Action Rotherham (VAR), 3,000 patients have been referred via the project since 2012. There are around 120 referrals a month to 30 different services, including befriending services, arts and crafts groups, exercise classes and even a lunch at a local rugby club.

Until social prescribing becomes more common, there are still things that you can do to help yourself or elderly parents and family members to reap the benefits. The first step should be an assessment by the correct local authority and drawing up a care plan. A care plan might include social activities if that is important to maintaining independence and mental and physical health. You or your family member may be entitled to a personal budget, which could be used to purchase these services if necessary. Even if no funding is granted, then many of these services are run by volunteers and are free, and the local authority is a good starting point for finding out what is available in the local area.

If a group-based activity isn’t right for you or your family member, then you could also consider hiring a support worker. A support worker is someone who can offer you many different kinds of support, but not personal care (that would be provided by a paid carer instead). This can be as simple as providing company on day trips or outings, help with shopping, or someone to work with you in your garden, for example. Hiring a support worker is not as difficult as it sounds and you can follow our advice for hiring a paid carer, as the steps are the same.

To find out more about social prescribing and ‘people-powered health’, take a look at:

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