Lucia Lazzereschi is a medical sciences graduate from the University of Exeter, currently in her second year of graduate medicine at Southampton Medical School.
In my first year of university I signed up for a new scheme that was being set up by medical students across the country on social prescribing. I had not come across the term before, but after reading an article by the College of Medicine about it I realised I had to sign up.
Considering I am thinking of becoming a GP when I graduate, the opportunity to spread awareness and teach other people about it seemed like a no-brainer. But what exactly is social prescribing?
Sometimes called community referral, social prescribing refers individuals to a link worker who then connects them with local community services such as volunteering, arts, cookery activities, gardening and sports. The aim of social prescribing is to address people's needs in a holistic way, taking into consideration that health is affected by an individual's socioeconomic background and environment.
The oldest social prescribing centre is the Bromley by Bow Centre in London. Staff work via a link worker who meets the patients and after a few sessions refers them to more than 35 local services such as gardening and legal advice. This is especially crucial, as social prescribing is truly individualised to the patient and the referral is based on the patient's social, emotional and practical needs. A study carried out in Bristol showed that social prescribing improved anxiety, general mental and emotional wellbeing as well as quality of life in patients that tried it.
Recently, social prescribing has been gaining attention and momentum. At the King's Fund Social prescribing: Coming of Age' conference in November, Bogdan Chiva Giurca, founder and chair of the student scheme, announced a National Social Prescribing Day for 14 March.
The aim of social prescribing is to address people's needs in a holistic way.
In preparation for this event, medical students like myself are busy organising talks, fairs and conferences with social prescribing at the crux of it all, in the hopes that GPs, patients and medical students can connect with each other to grow a social prescribing network in their areas.
Spreading awareness of social prescribing, as a medical student, hasn't come without its hurdles. In the area I am in, GPs aren't really aware of social prescribing and its benefits. If they are, they don't have a link worker in place and so although they would like to integrate social prescribing in their practice, they haven't been able to organise it and put the correct infrastructure in place.
Setting up something of this kind, even if mostly outsourced to community projects already in place, still requires initial staff resource and funding. Another issue with setting up social prescribing is that the appropriate community projects have to be available so that patients can be correctly referred to an activity that is going to improve their wellbeing and quality of life.
A major benefit of social prescribing is that patients are referred to organisations or individuals already present in the community. This however, can also be a problem if there is no infrastructure in place for patients to be referred to because then that needs to be organised first. The key to partly resolving this is to work closely with the volunteer sector in order to set something in place without having to do it from scratch.This has been done in Rotherham but it takes time and resources.
Despite this, every time I have explained social prescribing to medical students, a GP or a charity based in Hampshire, I have been greeted with enthusiasm and acknowledgement that it should be put in place. This is encouraging. Although the NHS is sometimes portrayed as having an uncertain future, the social prescribing movement occurring all over the country will hopefully positively shape a future NHS into a healthcare system that treats every patient holistically.