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How social prescribing can reduce pressure on NHS services

With a strong understanding of local community needs, social prescribing can ease the burden on healthcare services, such as 28% fewer GP consultations and 24% fewer attendances at A&E.


1 in 5 patients consult GPs for problems that are more social than medical. Tackling these needs is important because social and economic factors affect wellbeing. Still, they may not always need clinical services.

Social prescribing involves referring these patients to community support instead. This may reduce unnecessary pressure on healthcare services. It also ensures people receive the most appropriate support to address key needs.

What are key issues patients approach clinical services for?

There is a consistent increase in demand for emergency services in England. Loneliness and social isolation are two key reasons in this realm.

Most people experience loneliness at some point in their lives. Yet, loneliness as a chronic condition is worrying. According to the UK government, loneliness is a public health threat and contributes to an increased usage of public healthcare services.

Social isolation is a related yet distinct phenomenon. Socially isolated individuals may not always experience loneliness. Still, they are less socially connected with their community.

Both loneliness and social isolation may link to depression. Depression is a mental health condition that also affects physical health and wellbeing. Yet, loneliness and social isolation may need solutions beyond healthcare settings.

Components of health and wellbeing are often correlated. They concern one’s participation in social, economic, and political life. Social prescribing has the potential to address these issues in an extensive manner.

Social prescribing enables increasing connectedness at an individual level. Link workers work with clients to address socioeconomic factors affecting health. They then refer clients to local community services. These include activities like gardening or ad-hoc services like financial advice. Through active participation within the community, individuals build new relationships and connections. They also develop interpersonal and communication skills.

The idea is that as people feel better about themselves and their lives, they are less likely to call on medical services. This includes non-physical needs like loneliness and depression. In the long run, healthcare services should experience more targeted and reduced demand.

What is the evidence?

University of Westminster study found an average of 28% fewer GP consultations and 24% fewer attendances at A&E where social prescribing services were effective.

Another study within an English ambulance service found social prescribing to be beneficial. In particular, this was for those calling in about mental health, loneliness or social isolation. The main sub-groups here were older people and frequent users of 999 and 111 services. These groups can sometimes have complex conditions. Adequate interventions may not be possible in primary care settings.

Instead, social prescribing can support patients within pre-hospital emergency and urgent care. Link workers assist individuals to navigate their health and non-clinical resources available. The key aspect of any social prescribing service is this interaction. By embedding social prescribing, the demand for NHS services is likely to decline.

The social prescribing narrative is compelling. Qualitative evidence reveals that these services are backed by patients and GPs alike. More quantitative evidence is still needed to deduce proof of reduced demand for the NHS. Regardless, the growing scope of social prescribing remains promising. By developing a better understanding of local community needs, social prescribing can ease the burden on healthcare services in the long term.

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