Social prescribing: a standard part of health care

In light of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on physical and mental health, three national health organisations are calling on the Federal Government to make social prescribing a standard part of Australian healthcare.

The Consumers Health Forum, Mental Health Australia and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) are calling on the Government to develop and implement an Australian-wide social prescribing scheme as part of the Government’s 10 Year Primary Health Care Plan.

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Social prescribing offers a system of support and guidance for people struggling with chronic conditions to connect with their community, counter loneliness, depression and anxiety, and improve overall health outcomes by taking up simple but therapeutic activities.

These activities include group walking, reading groups and group art classes, and more – the premise of social prescribing is asking patients and customers that walk into a retail pharmacy, not only ‘what’s the matter with you?’ but ‘what matters to you?’ as well.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is presenting many challenges for primary care, particularly for patients with chronic illness and mental health issues,” says RACGP spokesperson Professor Mark Morgan, adding that this makes social prescribing more important now than ever.

“In the months and years ahead, when the full impact of this pandemic becomes clear, including the restrictions placed on social interaction and activities, we must consider all options on how to improve health outcomes.

“Social prescribing offers an innovative solution for patients with a variety of health concerns.”

According to CEO of the Consumers Health Forum, Leanne Wells, adds that social prescribing is a “way of delivering truly person-centred, comprehensive care”.

“It recognises that effective care, particularly for those with chronic illness, should embrace social and lifestyle risk factor management support, as well as conventional medical care,” she says.

Ms Wells adds that social prescribing can work and will work best when patients are “empowered to engage in activities that are meaningful to them” and that social prescribing can result in improvements in wellbeing, community connection, healthy behaviours, and anxiety and depression.

“[Social prescribing] increases community engagement and feelings of empowerment, confidence for self-care and resilience to manage health and psychosocial problems,” she says.

According to Ms Wells, for social prescribing to work, an “integrated approach” is needed.

“For example, the general practice can refer patients to appropriate support workers who can guide and encourage patients to more effectively self-manage their health,” she says.

And perhaps retail pharmacy can play a role in this space as well.

An advocate for social prescribing, Mental Health Australia CEO, Dr Leanne Beagley argues that “a prescription to improve one’s health should be much more than a piece of paper you take to a pharmacist”.

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“With the Covid-19 pandemic fast-tracking new ways of thinking and innovation healthcare, there has never been a more opportune time to improve and increase the availability and understanding of social prescribing and what it is.

“In the mental health ecosystem, we know that social support, connectedness and community engagement can often have a huge impact on one’s wellbeing and recovery.

“Organised and systematic social prescribing referral options for only GPs, but other health professionals, has the ability to provide truly person-centred and person-led care, especially if it is backed up with the right workforce in the right places to make it work,” says Dr Beagley.

Social prescribing has been widely introduced in the UK and is currently being trialled in Canada and Singapore.

Australia now has an opportunity to take a more systematic approach to social prescribing through a national social prescribing scheme under the 10 Year Primary Health Care Plan.

A webinar on social prescribing, which was held on 30 August 2020 can be viewed here.