Why your doctor could soon be prescribing you dance classes – Dr William Bird

Imagine if next time you visited your doctor, instead of them prescribing you any medicine, they instructed you to join a local gardening group or take up painting with a nearby arts and crafts club. While that may seem strange today, you may find your GP doing something very similar in the near future.

Social prescription sees healthcare professionals refer patients to non-clinical, community services such as volunteering, cookery, sports and other activities. Most social prescription services feature navigators – individuals whose role is to work closely with patients to understand their needs and help them access the most relevant local services to them.

Increasingly growing in popularity, social prescription has moved from being a fringe concept to the NHS today annoucning that 1,000 navigators will be recruited b y 2021. This has been spurred by an increasing understanding and appreciation about the social determinants of health – that providing someone with a sense of purpose, a social support network and a good environment can do as much for health as medicine.

A 2015 report by the Citizen Advice Bureau found that GPs in England spend almost one fifth of their time on social issues that are not principally about health. Nesta’s People Powered Health programme suggests that social prescription could reduce the cost of managing patients with a long-term condition by 20%.

The need for social prescribing has never been greater: the UK’s healthcare system is facing increasing pressures and demands. Illnesses associated with lifestyle currently cost the NHS more than £11 billion each year and could make up 40% of health service burden in England. To be able to solve this crisis we will need to find solutions that change people’s lifestyles.

Tackling the social causes of poor health is one of the reasons I initially set up Intelligent Health. Social prescription is in Intelligent Health’s DNA – from the first health walk schemes I helped set up in 1996 to Beat the Street which has engaged more than 900,000 people to date. Our Beat the Street programmes engage whole communities and create lasting behaviour change – once we have engaged the most hard-to-reach people in a community we are then able to signpost them into other existing, local activities that will help them stay active.

Beat the Street is just one form social prescription can take. With more than 100 social prescription programmes already in practice in the UK, the next few years should see even more healthcare providers take up social prescription as way of transforming health and wellbeing in their community by addressing the social, economic and environmental cause of ill-health.

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