What is social prescribing?
The accepted international definition of social prescribing is “a means for trusted individuals in clinical and community settings to identify that a person has non-medical, health-related social needs and to subsequently connect them to non-clinical supports and services within the community by co-producing a social prescription—a non-medical prescription, to improve health and well-being and to strengthen community connections.”
Many things that affect our health and wellbeing cannot be treated by doctors or medication alone – like loneliness, isolation or stress due to problems with housing or debt. Social prescribing is a way of connecting people to non-medical support to address these issues and other unmet needs.
In England, this typically involves a GP or another health professional referring patients to a Social Prescribing Link Worker. Link Workers work closely with individuals to understand their needs and develop a personalised plan to improve their health and wellbeing. This could involve:
- Helping someone who is isolated to join a befriending group, an art class or a community gardening project, based on what matters to them
- Connecting someone struggling with financial stress to a service that helps them manage debt or claim benefits
- Supporting someone with dementia to join a dementia choir, enabling them to maintain a sense of social connection
- Working with someone with high blood pressure to take up a form of exercise that they’re comfortable with.
Social prescribing activities can also be accessed with the active support of other health roles or less formal community roles. Find out more.
Why do we need social prescribing?
With an ageing society and rising rates of loneliness, our society’s health needs are changing. Over the past few years, the challenges of COVID-19 and the cost of living have put additional pressures both on people’s health.
The health system is often not equipped to deal with the social roots of health problems. It has been estimated that around one-fifth of GP appointment time involves addressing primarily social rather than medical problems. This includes issues like isolation, loneliness, relationship problems, debt or issues with housing.
Social prescribing involves understanding the complexity of people’s lives, as well as the inequalities they may face. It means helping people to overcome the barriers that prevent them from having good health and wellbeing, based on their unique circumstances and preferences. It provides a bridge between the NHS and the voluntary sector, ensuring more people can access non-medical support that benefits their health and wellbeing.
What are the benefits of social prescribing?
- Social prescribing improves individual health and wellbeing. There is strong evidence to show the positive impact of social prescribing on a wide range of outcomes. These include reductions in loneliness, improvements in mental health, in social connection and in overall wellbeing, and benefits for people living with a wide range of physical health conditions.
- Social prescribing seeks to reduce health inequalities. Vast differences in the social impacts on health, individual health behaviours, illness, disability, availability of services and activities, quality and experience of care, proximity to accessible natural spaces, geography, and wealth mean that health outcomes are not the same for everyone, with marginalised and vulnerable people often experiencing the worst outcomes. Social prescribing may address both the circumstances that make an individual unhealthy and their symptoms by supporting individuals to address their unmet social needs.
- Social prescribing benefits the health system. Social prescribing can lead to reduced health service usage within both primary and secondary care. For example, an evaluation of the social prescribing service in Shropshire showed a 40% reduction in GP appointments for people who had accessed social prescribing after three months.
- Social prescribing is good for the economy. Evaluations consistently show a favourable social return on investment, with a large study by the University of Sheffield showing a social return of £3.42 for every £1 invested.
What is the evidence for social prescribing?
There is a rapidly growing evidence base for social prescribing, which suggests it can have a positive impact on individual health and wellbeing and the health system.
Social prescribing connects people to nature-based, arts, culture and heritage, and physical activities or advice and resources to support their mental and physical health and wellbeing. These impacts are seen in the short- and medium-term. Social prescribing can particularly support older people, but there is further need for evidence on children and young people and other underrepresented groups.
Social prescribing uses a variety of funding models and can have a positive economic impact, in terms of reduced system usage and cost savings.
We are working with academics and experts around the world to continue to build the evidence base. Visit our evidence pages to find out more.
What is the role of the National Academy for Social Prescribing (NASP)?
The National Academy for Social Prescribing was established as a charity in 2019 to champion social prescribing. Our work includes:
- Co-creating and convening innovative partnerships, from local to international – including ‘More than a Game’, which creates links between the local NHS and community sport initiatives; and the International Programme.
- Boosting investment for frontline organisations delivering social prescribing, including through our Power of Music Fund and the Green Social Prescribing Programme. We are currently co-designing a Shared Investment Fund model in partnership with the National Lottery Community Fund.
- Building the evidence base, working with nearly 300 academics and experts around the world and publishing 15 thematic evidence reviews.
- Raising the profile of social prescribing through national campaigns.
How can I get my activity prescribed?
If you offer an activity, support group or session that could help people who are struggling with their health and wellbeing, then connecting with social prescribing could be a good way to reach people in need of support. It is important to appreciate that it may take time and effort to make this happen.
Some steps to take include:
- Contact your local social prescribing service to discuss the services or activities you provide and their needs and priorities. You may be able to find out about social prescribing in your area through
- Contacting your local GP surgery
- Contacting your local voluntary sector infrastructure organisation or CVS
You may need to talk to different people, depending on how social prescribing operates in your area – for example, a Link Worker, a Social Prescribing Service Manager or a Clinical Lead.
Discuss what you could provide. This will often mean talking about local health priorities and what the needs are, and ensuring that what you deliver is meeting those needs. You are more likely to receive referrals if you:
- Are delivering an activity or service that addresses local population health needs.
- Are able to show that what you are doing is evidence-based as to the value it adds and meets any recognised quality standards that apply to your work
- Can show data about outcomes that respond to your local health systems priorities (a summary of these will be in your local Integrated Care System’s published Forward plan)
- Have processes in place that mean you could share data with NHS colleagues where appropriate.
- Have an offer that aligns with NICE guidelines.
- If you are providing an activity related to nature, you could also contact Natural England’s Health and Natural Environment Regional Advisers via their Regional Offices. If your activity relates to physical exercise, you could contact Sport England’s Regional Activity Coordinators. If you are providing an activity related to arts or creativity, you could also contact the National Centre for Creative Health..
In each case, they may be able to tell you about how social prescribing works for organisations like yours in your area, connect you with other organisations in a similar position, and help you work in partnership.
- You can also join NASP’s Innovation Network to find out how other organisations are developing their social prescribing offers and working with health systems: Innovation Network - National Academy for Social Prescribing | NASP (socialprescribingacademy.org.uk)
If you would like your project to be commissioned by the NHS, and hope to receive funding for it, this is more complex. Your project would need to align with the Integrated Care Board’s Five Year Plan, and you will need to build a relationship with health commissioners. Local voluntary sector infrastructure organisations, or your local VCSE Alliance, may be able to give you more advice and information about this.
Who does NASP work with?
We provide a wide range of support and resources for healthcare professionals and leaders, Social Prescribing Link Workers, voluntary organisations, medical students, and academics. We also run campaigns to spread the word about social prescribing publicly.
How is social prescribing being rolled out in England?
Since the publication of the NHS Long Term plan in 2019, social prescribing has become an increasingly important part of England’s health system. There are now more than 3,500 Social Prescribing Link Workers in post across England, addressing the social factors related to poor health and wellbeing – including loneliness, isolation, financial issues, and problems with housing or work. So far, more than 2.5 million people have been referred to Link Workers, and the numbers are rising fast.
Social prescribing has been incorporated in policy across Government, including in the Loneliness Strategy, the Suicide Prevention Strategy and the Major Conditions strategic framework. The cross-Government Green Social Prescribing programme and The National Academy for Social Prescribing’s Thriving Communities Fund have demonstrated the impact of social prescribing on individuals, communities and the health system. The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan includes a target to recruit 9,000 Link Workers by 2036/7.
How is social prescribing being rolled out around the world?
What is green social prescribing?
Green social prescribing is the practice of supporting people to engage in nature-based interventions and activities to improve their mental and physical health. Social prescribing link workers (and other trusted professionals in allied roles) connect people to community groups and agencies for practical and emotional support, based on a ‘what matters to you’ conversation.
The Green Social Prescribing Toolkit is a resource for health and green sector practitioners. Find out more and download the toolkit.
What do health professionals think of social prescribing?
A survey of clinicians commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care in 2023 showed a high level of support for social prescribing. 97% of clinicians who took part felt favourable towards the concept in general, and 94% of respondents said that they were likely to refer patients to social prescribing in future.
61% of respondents said that they knew “a lot” about social prescribing, which suggests that there is more work to do to raise awareness of how social prescribing works in practice and how to implement it effectively.
If you would like to help spread the word about social prescribing, sign up to our Champions programme.
Why is it called social prescribing and do I need to use this term?
Social prescribing is a way of supporting social needs related to our health and wellbeing – like loneliness, isolation or problems with housing or finances. It is different from a medical prescription, in that it supports people to find non-medical forms of support – whether that’s social activities to combat isolation or debt advice.
Recognition of the term is growing in the UK: according to a YouGov survey commissioned by NASP, 17% of UK adults recognised the term “social prescribing” in March 2023, a rise from 12% the year previously.
NASP has run campaigns to improve public understanding of social prescribing. However, some social prescribing services or practitioners may choose to use different language to describe what they do, based on what they think will make sense to people they support.
What qualifications do I need to become a Social Prescribing Link Worker?
There are currently no specific qualifications needed to become a link worker but having suitable knowledge, skills and behaviours can help you to secure a role.
To find out more about the specifications of link workers please refer to our Link Worker Induction Guide, which has been written by link workers for link workers, and which is specifically aimed at those who are new to the role.
The NHS Workforce development framework: social prescribing link workers will also increase your understanding of the link worker role and provide information on the knowledge, skills and behaviours of a link worker. Please also refer to our link worker page for further information.
Is there a list of link workers/social prescribers across the country?
Unfortunately, there is not a list of social prescribers across the country. If you would like to connect with a local link worker, search online for social prescribing in your area – or contact your GP practice. Your local voluntary sector infrastructure organisation may also be able to provide information about social prescribing in your area (you can find infrastructure organisations in your area here): Find a member (navca.org.uk)
You may also want to join our Innovation Network, involving national and regional organisations who want to overcome challenges, build capacity and improve the delivery of social prescribing.
Is social prescribing an alternative to medication?
Social prescribing can reduce the need for medication by helping people to live healthier and happier lives - but it can also take place alongside pharmaceutical prescriptions. The National Overprescribing Review report highlighted social prescribing as one means of tackling the over-prescribing of medication.
I think I need a social prescription, what do I do?
We all go through times in our lives when we need a bit of extra support. The best place to start is talking to your GP surgery. They can point you in the direction of a Link Worker or Social Prescriber, if that’s what’s best for you. Many people also find they can connect with services themselves. Try looking for activities and groups available in your local community. If you’re concerned about a health issue, always seek medical advice.