New evidence reviews by NASP’s Academic Partners suggest that social prescribing has a wide range of positive outcomes, can reduce pressure on primary care and save costs for the NHS.

We commissioned our academic partners – a collaboration between seven institutions with expertise in social prescribing research – to complete a series of evidence reviews on key themes related to social prescribing, including on outcomes and the economic impact.

Their reviews suggest that social prescribing can reduce pressure on Primary Care, including GPs, and save costs. They also highlight evidence that social prescribing can have a positive impact on a very wide range of outcomes – including decreases in loneliness, improvements in mental health, in social connections and in overall wellbeing.

Reduced GP appointments

NASP separately carried out an analysis, supported by an external economist at eftec, that was based on one of the papers highlighted in the academic summary on economic impact. This looked to estimate the potential impact on primary care of the planned roll-out by NHS England of 4,500 social prescribing link workers by 2023/24.

The Link Worker programme will mean that many people who regularly visit their GP with issues that are related to social rather than medical issues – like loneliness, isolation or debt – or with conditions that would benefit from more holistic support, will be connected to relevant and effective support in the communities through social prescribing link workers.

Link workers have time to build trusting relationships, start with what matters to the person, create a shared plan and introduce people to community support. They may ‘prescribe’ a range of activities that are typically provided by voluntary and community sector organisations, for example, volunteering, arts activities, group learning, gardening, befriending, cookery, healthy eating advice and a range of sports.

Based on existing evidence, we estimate that the roll-out of 4,500 social prescribing link workers could lead to 4.5 million fewer GP appointments per year in England once the programme is fully operational.

Rather than try and create an average reduction in GP appointment rates from the many different types of studies available, this estimate is based on one of the high quality studies that met the criteria for inclusion in the academics’ expert review of the evidence on economic impact, and on NHS England data about the roll-out of the Link Worker programme to date.

As this is a reasonably new area of delivery, there has been relatively little funding available for research into the economic impact of social prescribing – so this forecast is based on the available evidence. The National Institute for Health Research NIHR evaluation of the Link Worker Programme will provide more robust information when it is published.

How we created our forecast

In order to produce a forecast, we extrapolated data from one of the high-quality studies that met the criteria for inclusion in the academics’ expert review on economic impact.

We based our forecast on the following information:

  • The NHS’ Link Worker Programme aims to recruit 4,500 Link Workers in Primary Care by 2023/4, and for this cohort to be engaging 900,000 people with social prescribing
  • In late 2021, the NHS reported that the first group of 1,500 Link Workers recruited were exceeding targets and had engaged 500,000 people in their first year of delivery.
  • It is therefore assumed that once in place, the full cohort of 4,500 Link Workers could be reaching 1.5M people per year.
  • It is also assumed that once in post, these 4,500 Link Worker roles will continue to engage 1.5M people every following year.
  • In NASP’s academic partners’ expert review of the evidence on economic impact, one of the studies highlighted reported a statistically significant reduction of 0.76 GP appointments per person at three months after participating in a social prescribing service. In other words, on average, after three months the people participating in the service were making nearly one less visit to their GP than they did before participating in the service.
  • The population group in this study, and those in other social prescribing studies, tend to visit their GPs much more frequently over a year than the general population. So, applying the scale of reduction in GP appointments seen in the study to the 1.5M people likely to be engaged by the 4,500 Link Workers for one year (rather than just 3 months) would equate to an annual 4.5 million fewer appointments with GPs.

This illustration is limited to calculations relating to the 4,500 Link Workers being recruited in Primary Care Networks through the NHS Programme. Link Workers employed through other routes, for example by local authorities or through co-commissioning, are not included in this illustration (due to an inability to gather data about this cohort.) So, the illustration may well underestimate the impact of the wider Link Worker cohort on the NHS.

Read the evidence on social prescribing