What are the next steps for social prescribing in England? Charlotte Osborn-Forde, Chief Executive of the National Academy for Social Prescribing, outlines how much has already been achieved and some priorities for the future.
Since the publication of the NHS Long Term plan in 2019, social prescribing has become an increasingly important part of our 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 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.
Over the past five years, with the challenges of COVID-19 and pressures on the cost of living, the role of social prescribing has become more important than ever. We have seen the impact on people and communities clearly through the cross-Government Green Social Prescribing programme and our own Thriving Communities Fund, as well as the stories we hear every day from link workers and grassroots groups.
The rapidly growing evidence base shows the benefits of social prescribing for our health system. 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.
There is a huge amount to celebrate in what has been achieved. However, it will be important to keep building on this momentum. We believe that priorities for the next five years could include:
- Ensuring that every GP practice in England has a Social Prescribing Link Worker, by almost doubling the number of link workers to 6,500. This is in line with the target in the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan and would support the health needs of two million people per year, reduce pressure on GPs and could help tackle health inequalities.
- Supporting frontline community organisations through Shared Investment Funds for social prescribing. Funding for community activities and services accessed through social prescribing can be short-term and fragmented. Shared Investment Funds, open to public, private and philanthropic investment, strategically shaped and locally deployed, would help charities and grassroots organisations deliver more sustainable support, in line with local health needs. We are currently scoping Shared Investment Funds in partnership with the National Lottery Community Fund.
- Improving data through a national hub to ensure social prescribing becomes business as usual in the NHS. The evidence for social prescribing is almost universally positive, but we need better, real time data to help drive continuous, system-wide improvements, and inform the design and commissioning of new social prescribing services. This could mean millions more people benefiting through secondary, specialist and proactive care.
- Establishing a world-class training and development programme for Social Prescribing Link Workers and social prescribing leaders working in the NHS and beyond. The expansion of the workforce requires a comprehensive programme of professional development, skill specialism and clarity on the most impactful approaches.
- Making prevention a priority by embedding social prescribing in wider civic and community services – including in workplaces. New ‘upstream’ programmes could prevent or delay the need for healthcare by keeping people active, connected and well in their homes, workplaces and communities. This could include a new social prescribing workplace programme.
Through these actions, we could increase the scale and impact of social prescribing, take pressure off the wider NHS, and ensure that many more people can benefit.