Social prescribing

Social prescribing consists of linking individuals from primary care (often their GP) to social interventions which have the potential to improve health and wellbeing. This pathway expands the options available to clinicians whose patients have complex social needs as well as medical, by connecting people to community resources, information and social activities, as well as linking people to a range of statutory and non-statutory agencies.

Potentially, social prescriptions can enable healthcare professionals to respond more effectively respond to a range of non-clinical needs and engage patients with professionals who are able to provide longer consultations and who have detailed knowledge of local social activities.

The range of activities that people engage with is diverse and can include gardening programmes, books on prescription, exercise on referral, referral for debt counselling, or housing advice. The range is such that the mechanisms of action are also diverse and can be activated through being with people, cognitive stimulation, or identity generation. In this way, social prescriptions are potentially applicable for treating a broad range of conditions or their prevention.

The practice of social prescribing is growing in popularity, but delivery is also disparate, variable and complex. A variety of referral models exist, ranging from signposting by primary care practitioners through to iterative activity choices, facilitated by link workers who can meet at length with patients and collate available activities to suit need and lifestyle, as well as provide a point of ongoing contact. There are a myriad of ways in which this process can be disrupted, for example if staff are not aware or unsupportive of the idea, or patients are unable to initiate their particular social prescription, it is impossible to maximise the potential of the service, ensure appropriate use, and avoid wasting resources.

There is then a risk of social prescribing services being developed without evidence about what should be offered or the processes that are required to support them, with a disconnect between health and other services resulting in patients not getting a social prescription appropriate to their needs. Our research programme seeks to generate robust evidence about what works, for whom, and in what ways.

Active projects

1. We have been commissioned by the Sustainability and Transformation Partnership (STP) for Devon, to undertake social prescribing evaluation and implementation research (the DESSPER project); which fits into broader ‘researcher-in-residence’ projects.

2. We have been commissioned by Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust (TSD NHSFT) and Torbay Medical Research Fund to support the evaluation of social prescribing (Well-being Co-ordination service) and other elements of TSD NHSFT’s new model of integrated care. This work also fits into the broader ‘researcher-in-residence’ projects.

3. We have been commissioned by Sport England for the Flourish in Nature project. Delivered by EDP Drug and Alcohol Services in partnership with Devon Wildlife Trust and Active Devon, which aims to support people in their alcohol and drug use recovery journey by providing opportunities as volunteers in natural environments.

4. Social prescribing for older people in the time of COVID drawing on the cultural sector. We will be examining social prescribing for older people in the time of COVID drawing on the cultural sector in a project titled: “Optimising cultural provision to improve older people’s wellbeing through social prescribing in the context of COVID-19: Realist review and evaluation.”

5. PenARC researchers in the field of social prescribing are leading a new partnership to ensure that evidence of the impact of social prescribing is accessible, useful and compelling, the National Academy for Social Prescribing has announced.

6. Medical Research Council Project PHIND Social Prescribing. University of Plymouth researchers are partnering with the SIPHER consortium, to use a structured approach to design a future programme of community-referred social prescribing suitable for individuals to use and access community assets for their health.

7. Defra Green Social Prescribing evaluation work.  A team of researchers at The University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, the University of Exeter and the University of Plymouth are working in partnership to evaluate how to deliver green social prescribing.

8. Social prescribing and horticulture therapy for autistic adults. This PhD research project aims to explore the feasibility and acceptability of social prescribing for adults on the autism spectrum as a mechanism for improving health, wellbeing and quality of life.

Completed projects

1. We recently published a realist review of social prescribing as a process:

2. We are also working with two newly funded (by the Health and Wellbeing fund of the Department of Health and Social Care) social prescribing schemes: one in Cornwall and one in Plymouth, to evaluate the implementation and impact of their schemes.

3. A project seeking to develop a ‘nature-on-prescription’ intervention, funded by the MRC. Download the Nature on Prescription Handbook from the European Centre for Environment & Human Health website.

4. We have been working with Defra to identify what works in the use of nature-based therapeutic interventions for people with an identifiable mental illness. The new work is closely aligned with the MRC funded Nature on Prescription project. Download the Therapeutic Nature report from the Defra website.

5. Resources for children and young people’s social prescribing. In 2020, NHS England & Improvement (NHSE&I) commissioned the Social Prescribing Youth Network (SPYN) to develop a proposal for an all-ages model of social prescribing. Our team from PenARC fed into this process, contributing topic and methodological expertise. Following the completion of this work and using some of the information gathered, the SPYN worked independently to produce this resource, which is intended to help more areas to introduce all-ages social prescribing.

Meet the Plymouth team