Health secretary Matt Hancock has promised a £4.5m investment towards social prescribing schemes such as gardening or arts clubs.
Speaking to the Times, Mr Hancock said the money could be used to set up social prescribing options – such as sports clubs – or help GP practices employ staff to signpost patients to local organisations.
According to the paper, Mr Hancock thinks expanding social prescribing will give GPs alternatives to ‘unsophisticated drugs’, including for mental health problems.
He told the paper: ‘Evidence has shown the potential benefits of approaches like social prescribing, which addresses people’s physical and mental wellbeing and has been shown to both improve patients’ quality of life and reduce pressure on other NHS services.’
A total of 23 social prescribing projects in England will receive a share of the funding to extend existing social prescribing schemes or establish new ones.
The schemes include a focus on:
- reaching out to people who may be socially isolated, for example because of mental health problems or learning difficulties;
- providing support for those impacted by health inequalities, such as transgender people or people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds;
- helping people with particularly complex needs who regularly access health services.
The funding will come from the Health and Wellbeing Fund, part of a programme of government investment in the voluntary sector. The projects will be fully funded through the scheme in their first year. Additional joint funding from local commissioners will be agreed for the subsequent two years.
Many CCGs have already started rolling out social prescribing schemes, following the GP Forward View, which promoted to use of such programmes.
NICE has also endorsed the approach, and encouraged GPs to recommend local singing, arts and crafts and walking groups to patients considered at risk of loneliness and isolation.
And the RCGP teamed up with Parkrun UK last month to urge GPs to ‘prescribe’ running 5k to their patients, in order to improve their health and wellbeing.
Commenting on the health secretary’s announcement, RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: ‘This funding initiative sounds very interesting, but we’re keen to see how this promise is going to translate into frontline GP services.
‘We requested a meeting with Mr Hancock two weeks ago and are looking forward to hearing when we can sit down to discuss this, as well as the other ways in which we believe general practice must be properly supported and resourced.’
BMA GP Committee workforce lead Dr Krishna Kasaraneni said: ‘Social prescribing schemes have the potential to have a positive impact for patients as well as in reducing GP workload.
‘However, in order to inform best practice, the evidence base must be expanded, and new and existing schemes should be appropriately evaluated, including considering the long-term impacts on patient outcomes.’
A systematic review looking at studies of social prescribing programmes between 2009 and 2016, found that the evidence base was ‘a mess’ and said that the current evidence failed to provide enough detail to judge either success or value for money. It added that none of the studies evaluated could be trusted due to bias and poor methodology.