Jane Pightling: Designed in the right way social prescribing could deliver huge benefits, let’s not waste it

There has been much discussion about social prescribing since funding announcements were made over the summer. Yesterday it was announced that more than 1000 link workers will be recruited by 2020-21 to help with social prescribing. I understand the appeal. I recently worked with a group of GPs who despaired that what they had on offer could not help most of their patients. Many of the people they saw did not need diagnosis or treatment, but access to social opportunities, debt advice, or lifestyle support. Social prescribing can help us feel that we are doing something useful, and it also taps into the prevention agenda. How much more efficient we could be if we prevented illness. However, I have some concerns. Social prescribing is being talked about as a new panacea. I think it could make a difference, but only if we agree its intended purpose and deliberately align our approach to this.  

Is the aim to reduce demand in GP surgeries to help manage increasing demand?  An aging workforce and difficulty recruiting and retaining staff compound capacity issues. GPs aim to provide what their patients need, and they want to make a difference. Some hail social prescribing as a return to the service they used to provide 25 years ago, before the implementation of the 10-minute appointment. Diverting demand to a community marketplace and seeking to reduce future demand in this way could be helpful. But, this aim is about moving demand in the system from one place to another, and does not challenge the system itself.

Social prescribing is also described as a lever for change, which aims to redefine medical practice, help GPs embrace a holistic approach, connect with the communities they work within and deliver person-centred care. It has been reported as a radical new way of working. An approach to deliver the prevention agenda thereby reducing demand permanently and creating a sustainable health and care system for the future. These aims are transformational, they intend to change power relationships, beliefs, and attitudes that underpin our practice, and the way we design and deliver services.

I believe this initiative does have the potential to deliver transformation. Social prescribing could be a way to build communities and individuals who are health literate, motivated, and resilient enough to promote their own health and wellbeing. However, social prescribing can only deliver this if we act intentionally and align the way that we design and deliver the programme with this purpose. We need to learn lessons from other similar initiatives. The story of Sure Start shows how we can unintentionally destroy social capital in a well-intentioned attempt to improve things. The evaluation showed how Sure Start adversely impacted on existing community provision for young families such as playgroups and how the Sure Start services were used more by families from higher socio-economic groups.  I recently spent time with a small community arts project. They told me GPs want to refer to the project, but are unable to. Referrals can only be made to services that have been funded by social prescribing money. The arts project will close soon as their previous funding source has ceased.

But there are some positive examples. The “social prescribing” that has been taking place in mental health services for over a decade has much to teach us. Initiatives such as Creative Minds which is run with South West Yorkshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust have achieved impressive results. The approach that they used gave resources and the power to decide how to deploy them to the people who would use the services. If we ignore this learning and continue to use traditional language, thinking, and tools to implement social prescribing then, we will not deliver transformational results, but perpetuate, and maybe even worsen, the current situation.

The words “social prescribing” do not challenge the traditional medical sphere, but reinforce it. Accessing these resources requires a visit to and referral from the GP. As funding is directed to support this scheme, GPs will become gatekeepers to services that people used to access directly. Deprived of funding, the provision people used to attend independently will cease. We may unwittingly increase dependency, rather than promote independence. If we intend to deliver something radical, we must design services in a way that  involves GPs in civil society and which can manifest the community’s own definition of health and wellbeing. For communities to promote healthy lives, we need to recognise their strengths, delegate power and resources, and trust and support them to build resilience. To deliver change in the system we will need to change ourselves, our attitudes, the way we work, and our relationship with citizens and communities.  Designed in the right way this initiative could deliver huge benefits, let’s not waste it.


Jane Pightling has over 20 years’ experience working in health and social care. She coaches systems to create organisational structures. Twitter @JanePightling

Competing interests: None declared