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Social prescribing: Bridging the gap between clinical and social care

The Bottom Line

  • Many patients consult their healthcare professionals for psychosocial problems such as social isolation, loneliness, housing problems, or complex grief.
  • The goal of social prescribing is to refer patients to psychosocial resources in their community to break isolation, promote autonomy and mobility, and promote a healthy lifestyle.
  • Social prescribing has the potential to improve patients' health and well-being, as well as health-related behaviours.

People suffer from all sorts of ailments that may prompt them to seek medical attention. But it's not always about physical-health issues. Many patients consult their healthcare professionals for psychosocial problems such as social isolation, loneliness, housing insecurity, or complex grief.

But what if your family doctor or healthcare professional gave you a prescription to meet with psychosocial resources in your community, or to take a "forest bath", join a men's shed, take a yoga class, or do voluntary work? (1; 2)

"Social prescribing" is already popular in the United Kingdom and has made its way to Canada.(3) Social prescribing enables patients with non-medical needs to get support to improve their health and well-being. Social prescribing recognizes that people's health and well-being are primarily determined by a range of social, economic and environmental factors.

Since simply informing patients of existing resources does not necessarily prompt them to get engaged, physicians (and other professionals with the ability to prescribe) can now write actual prescriptions to encourage them to connect with community resources or volunteers who can support them and offer them relevant activities and tools.

But what does research tell us about the effectiveness of social prescribing?

What the research tells us

A recent high-quality systematic review examined studies investigating the effectiveness of social prescribing.(4) Despite the small number of studies (16 in total) and the disparity of results, several studies show beneficial effects in the ability to perform daily activities, quality of life, anxiety, depression, loneliness and social isolation.

Studies show that social prescribing provides opportunities for activities that help establish social ties, foster a sense of belonging and community engagement.

People who "used" their prescription also saw improvements in their mental health, physical health and general well-being: whether it was increased their level of physical activity, reduced their consumption of alcohol, drugs and unhealthy foods, weight loss, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, increased self-confidence, and provided a greater sense of independence and self-reliance.

These impacts can have a domino effect. Developing and improving one's self-confidence make it possible to feel capable of carrying out certain activities, such as using public transit, leaving one's home, getting involved in new activities and taking control of their health and care.

In addition, the caring advice and encouragement of community professionals leads to help in all areas of life: from debt management, to accessing social assistance and housing, employment assistance, as well as the resolution of daily problems.

Findings from this review resonate with a pilot project launched in 2018 by the Alliance for Healthier Communities in Ontario.(5) Among patients who received a social prescription, 12% of them indicated an improvement in their mental health, 49% indicated a decrease in their isolation, and 19% pointed to an increase in their social activities. As for healthcare professionals, they observed a decrease in repeat visits by their patients.

An emerging practice

Social prescribing is still an emerging practice in the country. It is important to raise awareness among the public and professionals about social prescribing, support pilot-projects, as well as expand or replicate these projects to reach more people. In the long run, making changes in the governance, funding and delivery arrangements in health systems may be necessary to support social prescribing. 

In the meantime, learn more about social prescribing by accessing the ressources offered by the Alliance for Healthier Communities: https://www.allianceon.org/Social-Prescribing


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Author Details

References

  1. Lévesques D. Les médecins peuvent prescribe des "bains de forêt" dans les parcs nationaux. Radio-Canada. 1 February 2022. (accessed on 23 February 2022).
  2. Men's Sheds Association. Social prescribing. (accessed on 23 February 2022).
  3. Radio-Canada. Les prescriptions sociales: un nouvel outil pour briser l'isolement. 24 December 2019. (accessed on 23 February 2022).
  4. Pescheny JV, Randhawa G, Pappas Y. The impact of social prescribing services on service users: A systematic review of the evidence. European Journal of Public Health. 2020;30(4):664-673.
  5. Alliance for Healthier Communities. Social prescribing. (accessed on 23 February 2022).

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