Is social prescribing something that might be of benefit?

Have you heard of social prescribing? Dr Michelle O'Driscoll examines it in her weekly column
Is social prescribing something that might be of benefit?

What is the concept of ‘social prescribing’? Dr Michelle O'Driscoll explains it in her weekly column.

WE’RE all very familiar with the process of going to the GP for a consultation when we’re not feeling well, or for a check-up if we have ongoing health complications. The discussion very often ends with a prescription for one or more medications, and getting that prescription filled in our local pharmacy.

Doctors (and some nurses qualified to do so) prescribe medicines based on the condition presenting to them, and their conclusion about what is needed to treat that condition or illness. The aim of prescribing is to improve health outcomes and patient wellbeing. So what then is the concept of ‘social prescribing’?

Social prescribing is an approach that looks not specifically to medication to improve health, but instead recognises that social factors play a very significant role in health outcomes. These could be isolation, loneliness or poverty, amongst others.

With social prescribing, rather than writing a prescription for a medication, or indeed in addition to writing a prescription for a medication, the healthcare professional looks at the whole picture presented to them in a more holistic manner. 

They consider the social factors that could potentially be contributing to the ill-health, and how best to address these, by ‘prescribing’ actions or activities to counter-balance them. In a scheme currently being rolled out in Ireland, GPs and other healthcare professionals are being afforded the means to refer patients to a range of non-clinical community supports.

The official outlined process for social prescribing has three key steps, starting with referral: Connecting with a link worker to plan an intervention: then beginning a local activity or service. The activity might be something like cooking classes, GAA, walking groups or men’s sheds to increase connection, engagement and social interaction. Alternatively, it might be a service to boost healthy behaviours, such as smoking cessation.

There are multiple locations across the country where you can get involved, and there is associated funding provided, depending on the area you’re in.

The HSE has developed a Social Prescribing Framework, launched in 2021, that outlines the process and plans for this service. It is gradually being rolled out in different sites across the country. The service is geared towards those with one or more long-term conditions, who need support with their mental health, who are lonely or isolated, or who are frequent GP/ED attendees and may benefit from other social supports outside of clinical services.

The plan is that social prescribing link workers will be recruited, employed and hosted by community and voluntary organisations, with a physical presence for 1-2 days a week in a local primary care centre or GP practice.

Covid has slowed the progress of the overall implementation, but adaptations have been made where possible when certain activities were not running. Follow-up should happen with the link worker across eight sessions over three months, to see how the interventions are working and how to bring the benefits forward.

So, bringing this national plan back to your own health or the health of your loved one – is social prescribing something that might be of benefit?

The sign-up process would involve reflecting on what matters to you, what parts of your life are relevant to your social wellbeing, your health goals and existing conditions, and the plan going forward. Even if the official procedures aren’t yet available in your area, identify things that you enjoy doing that would boost mood and get you interacting with others.

This is worth reflecting on if it means combatting some of the things, like loneliness or isolation, we know can negatively impact both our physical and mental health. Any healthcare professional would be happy to guide you in the right direction, and support you on that health journey. Just reach out and ask for the support!

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