The Department of Health has invited health and care providers to bid for up to £300,000 a year for social prescribing schemes, which it has said can reduce demand in general practice.
The only eligibility criteria is that initiatives ‘reduce health inequalities’ but the type of scheme and target group can otherwise be locally defined, and can include things like art classes.
The DH is making a total of around £4m available via its Health and Wellbeing Fund, aimed at expanding social prescribing across England.
However application guidance makes clear that funding for approved projects is time limited to three years, after which they are expected to be self-funded.
The second and third years will be funded at 50% and 20% respectively, meaning the maximum amount of money any project could receive from the DH is £610,000.
The application guidance says any approved schemes must include plans for a ‘care navigator or link worker’ to help patients understand the support on offer.
And it must have support from local commissioners, who are expected to part fund the scheme in year two and beyond.
The document adds: ‘Organisations are invited to bid for funding of up to £300,000 for the first year of their scheme.
‘This is a maximum and when applications are assessed consideration will be given to the scale and scope of schemes in relation to the amount of funding requested.’
It says schemes can cover a wide variety of activities, which could include ‘befriending, art classes and exercise classes’, adding that it is ‘not dictating that schemes must focus on a particular patient group’.
Interested parties have until 21 November to submit, with successful entries due to be announced in December.
But it goes on to warn that with the DH ‘heading into a period of reduced resources’ even approved schemes don’t have their funding guaranteed beyond April 2018.
Commenting on the announcement, BMA GP Committee prescribing lead Dr Andrew Green told Pulse: ‘There is no doubt that many problems that patients come to GPs about have their roots in problems that are more social than medical, and we are not the right people to provide this support.
‘We therefore welcome the provision of services that can fulfil this need.’
However he added that there was a ‘disturbing picture emerging, as we saw with the schemes to help more pharmacists into general practice, that central funds are only provided for the initial years’.
He said: ‘At a time of shrinking budgets, the obvious question to ask is thanks, but what [happens when funding stops]?’
NHS England’s national clinical lead for social prescribing, Devon GP Dr Michael Dixon, said the DH invitation was ‘very good news’.
He told Pulse: ‘It’s going to give a shot in the arm to areas where social prescription hasn’t yet got a good foothold and it’s encouraging partnerships to develop with CCGs and others, which is good.’
‘On the bad side, it’s not sustainable funding. But we need to create sustainable funding and this is a great start.’
A DH spokesperson confirmed to Pulse that the fund totalled £4m but declined to comment further.
The drive towards social prescribing
Social prescribing was hailed as an important route to managing patient demand in NHS England’s GP Forward View . The King’s Fund has advocated the benefits of GPs prescribing gardening to patients with conditions such as heart disease and dementia.
However it remains uncertain how effective social interventions are – and GPs have conflicting opinions about the role they should have in general practice, with some arguing it provides GPs with alternatives to traditional care to help manage patients and others branding it ‘a waste of time’.
Dr Arvind Madan, NHS England’s director of primary care, has said that the ‘ambition is that, eventually, every practice will have access to all the initiatives in the GPFV’, including social prescribing options.
Pulse revealed last year that NHS chiefs were pushing for every GP practice to have £1 per patient for social prescribing, and Pulse has revealed that several CCGs and local councils are now investing heavily in the schemes.