Projections predict that the UK population will reach over 74 million people by 2039, where 22% will be over 65 years old. This is crucial information for our National Health Service (NHS) as more resources and man-force will have to be dedicated to the elderly.
As our body ages, we are more susceptible to a variety of heart, lung and mobility problems. Therefore, a lot of elderly individuals have chronic conditions for which they have to take various medications, often multiple times a day.
For example, patients with rheumatoid arthritis – a condition that causes pain and inflammation of the joints – require frequent medication to alleviate pain; medication that has to be taken for the rest of their life, and physically impacting them each day.
The issue however isn’t only physical but is multi-faceted. Let’s say our patient with rheumatoid arthritis is a piano teacher; the medication may help her with the stiffness and the pain caused by the condition, but it won’t help with the fact that she will lose considerable income as she won’t be able to teach as many people as before AND for as long as before. In addition, the chronic condition will make her tire more easily, which may impact her overall well-being and her relationships with friends and family.
But what if this burden, and the patient’s worries, could be relieved by utilising community projects and activities that are already occurring in the community?
That is the crux of social prescribing.
Sometimes called community referral, social prescribing refers individuals to local community services such as volunteering, arts and cookery activities, gardening and a range of sports available in the local area. The aim of social prescribing is therefore to address people’s needs in a holistic way, taking into consideration that health is affected by an individual’s genetics, socioeconomic background and environment.
The oldest social prescribing centre is found in London and is the Bromley by Bow Centre. Staff work via a link worker that meets the patients and, after a few sessions, refers them to over 35 local services such as gardening and legal advice. This is especially crucial, as social prescribing is truly individualised to the patient and the referral is based on the patient’s social, emotional and practical needs. A recent study carried out in Bristol showed that social prescribing improved anxiety, general mental and emotional wellbeing as well as quality of life in patients that tried it.
Recently, social prescribing has been gaining attention and momentum, with a social prescribing scheme being set up by medical students across the country. The aim of the scheme is to raise awareness in the areas around each medical school with the hope of integrating it in the medical curriculum so that eventually, social prescribing will occur in every GP practice nation-wide.
Student-led events have already been going on around the country, with a medical student in Swansea setting up a social prescribing fair. Rebecca Fulton, the student lead for the fair, highlighted the importance of social prescribing:
“Events like this demonstrate the growing awareness of the benefits social prescribing can bring to the healthcare system, the local community and, most importantly, to patients.”
At the King’s Fund’s Social Prescribing: Coming of Age conference on Tuesday 6th of November, Bogdan Chiva Giurca, Founder and Chair of the student scheme announced a National Social Prescribing Day on the 14th March. This is encouraging; although current affairs may be portraying an uncertain future for the NHS this will hopefully positively shape the future of our health service.