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At the heart of general practice since 1960

More than just spuds: how our garden improves wellbeing

Dr Vikesh Sharma describes how opening a garden just outside his practice helps patients

The problem

I’ve been looking for a way to engage our more socially isolated patients and connect the GP practice more with the community, more of a community hub. We’re a 7,000-patient practice in Stockwell, in a very deprived area of south London and with a very diverse population – we have over 66 nationalities on our patient list and a third of our patients speak Portuguese.

Two years ago, when I saw a presentation from the Lambeth GP Food Co-op, an organisation that sets up and runs gardening sessions in GP practices, I realised this could be the opportunity I was looking for.

What we did

Lambeth GP food co-op is a borough-wide, community-led group of patients, doctors, nurses and local residents. It supports patients with long-term health conditions to learn how to grow fruit and vegetables.

In April 2016, with the help of the co-op, we set up a vegetable garden outside our practice. We were the eleventh practice to join the co-op and with their experience, there wasn’t much work or any money required on our part. The co-op is funded with a modest grant from Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust and we’re now looking for additional funds to meet increased demand.

Every Wednesday afternoon, a nurse who is a skilled gardener leads a session for any interested patients, teaching them how to grow vegetables in eight planters we have outside the practice. At the same time there are opportunities for discussions on healthy eating, and advice on keeping cardiovascular risk low or helping with diabetes.

Patients turn up as and when they feel like it – we have posters and leaflets in the waiting room advertising the sessions and a message on the website. When we first set it up we sent all patients a text and an email about it.

I recommend the garden sessions in consultations if I feel a patient would benefit. For patients that are particularly isolated, who have lost confidence about leaving their house or are suffering from anxiety or low mood and need a safe environment to rebuild their confidence, it’s a good option to offer instead of psychological therapies or medication. And it’s a lot easier to offer them an option that is at the practice, instead of referring them elsewhere where they might have to travel.

Challenges

The main challenge is recruiting patients to the project as it’s such a novel idea. People come to GP surgeries and expect to be referred down certain pathways and it requires a change of mindset for some of them to consider the gardening club as a viable option.

Results

Currently there are four patients regularly attending the service, with several others dropping in and out each week.

I enjoy being able to offer it to patients. It’s too early for us to assess the positive impact on these patients but I suspect it will improve their mood and reduce the demand for appointments.

It has been an opportunity for one of our salaried GPs (who is a keen gardener) to take the lead on an initiative. The staff are enthusiastic about it.

In addition, the practice garden has allowed us to connect with other services around us.

We’re based on the bottom floor of a tower block run by a national housing company and so we now have a closer relationship with them through negotiating the space for this project. There’s another surgery in the same building that is also involved with the project, so we’ve been able to build relations with them as well as the whole estate around us.

Patients get to eat everything they produce and the wider food co-op has started selling fruit and vegetables grown by patients at King’s College hospital, with the money going back into the co-op.

The future

There are three large tower blocks around us with bits of garden, so there’s no reason why we couldn’t start setting up planters around all the blocks, creating a little village of them, where people can drop in and do vegetable growing.

For our practice, this is part of an ongoing goal to make the GP surgery a community hub and to cover more of our patients’ health and wellbeing needs.

Dr Vikesh Sharma is a GP at the Grantham practice in Stockwell, Lambeth, south London

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