GP practices offering financial or legal advice services on their premises could greatly reduce the estimated 15% of GP consultation time which is spent on benefits issues, and reduce appointments and prescribing, a new report has claimed.
The evidence review by the Low Commission – led by Lord Low, and set up by a group of welfare charities – has found a number of potential benefits to citizens advice bureaus being located alongside GP practices, as well as support from GPs who believe more services are needed to treat the social causes of ill health.
However, the review highlighted there is little high quality evidence to support the health improvement, or cost-reducing benefits of such social prescribing schemes yet.
The report notes broad consensus amongst GPs that their patients would benefit from legal or specialist advice on benefits and housing.
It cites a survey of 1,000 GPs in October 2014 that found 88% believed difficulty accessing advice services would have a negative impact on their health, with 48% thinking it would greatly affect their health.
The think-tank also highlights a business case compiled by the London Health Inequalities Network in 2013, which found that practices providing advice could save GPs time.
The Low Commission report states: ‘one study estimated that 15% of GPs’ consultation involved welfare rights issues. [Providing benefits advice] resulted in reduced costs associated with GP drug prescriptions and reducing the number of patient visits to their GP on an already stretched service.’
The report concludes: ‘The pressures on the NHS are increasing, with demand growing rapidly as the population ages, and long-term conditions as well as widening health inequalities becoming more common. Welfare advice interventions can deliver a range of health‐related benefits, such as lower anxiety, better general health and more stable relationships and housing.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has spoken out in support of GPs turning to social prescribing solutions as part of his ‘new deal’ speech.
He also told MPs last year they would not stand in the way of further initiatives. However, this came just weeks after GPs warned that cutbacks to social and legal aid support was making patients sicker.