Art classes, ballroom dancing lessons, history groups and football clubs could soon be appearing on a prescription from your GP, as part of “social prescribing” plans being launched by NHS England this week.
Under the NHS Long Term Plan, advisers will be recruited to work alongside GP surgeries, linking patients with community services to help them deal with conditions including diabetes, dementia, loneliness, anxiety and depression.
NHS England says and there’s growing evidence that taking part in exercise or arts groups can often help treat the causes of such conditions more effectively than traditional medication.
“Most patients come to the doctor with myriad problems,” D William Bird, a GP from Reading, told Sky News.
“They have perhaps a bit of depression, you check their blood pressure and it’s looking a little bit high, their diabetes is looking a bit dodgy. In the past we’d give lots of medicines, and patients don’t like that, they get worried about it.
“Give them a link worker, and then move them into something in the community, and suddenly they get something they love, and they get really excited about. They can actually be part of a new team, they can meet new people. Their life takes off. What we find is their blood pressure goes down, their diabetes gets better, their depression lifts.”
The £4.5bn NHS scheme includes a commitment to place over 1,000 link workers in primary care networks by April 2021, with more in place by 2024 so that they can handle 900,000 patient appointments a year.
The Clinical Commissioning Group for Newham, in east London, which has the lowest percentage of physically active adults in the whole country, already has such a scheme in place.
As part of it, they commissioned West Ham United’s Foundation to provide a walking football programme for the over-50s, and say so far 400 people have successfully completed the 24-week programme, with the average participant’s weekly exercise time growing from 83 to 326 minutes.
One participant, Arif, says he used to weigh over 15-stone and was warned by his doctor he was well on the way to getting diabetes. But he was prescribed the club by his link worker and found it made a big difference.
“In Nov 2015, I came up as pre-diabetes, I was borderline. It was a rude awakening for me to do something. I was 100-plus kilos, I shed it off to 85 kilos now. I’m healthy, with a new lease of life, new friends, new family. Energetic. What more could I ask?”
Link worker Layla McNeilly says the hour-long initial assessment she has with her patient allows them to discuss issues in more depth.
She said: “We get a lot of people suffering social isolation, various kinds of stresses, just giving them that outlet to talk to us for one hour – I feel like a counsellor sometimes. It’s rewarding because we see benefits such as weight loss, changes to blood pressure, and also the mental health benefits are massive.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “As part of the NHS Long Term Plan, social prescribing will become an indispensable tool for GPs, who will be supported by a new army of workers. This is prevention in action and will help to combat some of the scourges of modern life, from loneliness to mental health, or over-medicalisation.”
Ruthe Isden, head of health and social care at Age UK, said social prescribing has huge benefits but “will only really be realised if the NHS can work in close collaboration with the voluntary and community sector which fundamentally it’s going to depend on to deliver a lot of the services and types of support that we’re describing”.
As for the wider NHS Long Term Plan, she said this “has to go hand in hand with improvements in social care, and that’s the bit of the puzzle that the government’s yet to grasp the nettle on, so we’re very much looking forward to the Social Care green paper and the improvements in social care which are also sorely overdue”.