A British Red Cross volunteer and a person taking part in our loneliness service sit on a park bench smiling and arm-in-arm.

On Social Prescribing Day, I’ve been reflecting on how the past few years have seen a step change in how we think about health. Meeting people’s social, emotional and practical needs is increasingly seen as just as important as treating their medical ones.

It’s hard to imagine that even five years ago, government and the NHS would promote non-clinical approaches to enduring health issues, let alone invest millions into social prescribing initiatives.

Today, they are recruiting thousands of social prescribing link workers to support GPs and other healthcare professionals. These link workers will help meet people’s emotional and practical needs by growing their confidence and connecting them into new opportunities in the community.

We know from our own services tackling loneliness and supporting tens of thousands of people home from hospital each year that connecting people back into their communities and a personalised care approach isn’t just a nice-to-have. Always asking ‘what matters to you’ is essential if we want to improve health and wellbeing outcomes.

These sorts of schemes don’t just help individuals – they reduce pressure on our systems too. An evaluation of our community connector social prescribing services found that the approach was both effective in reducing loneliness and cost effective too, with £2.04 of social value created for every £1 invested.

Things aren’t perfect. While social prescribing has arguably been around for many years, it’s relatively new to the NHS and will take time to embed.

Building strong and trusting relationships across and between sectors is notoriously difficult – but crucial if we want social prescribing to work.

Funding and support for local community-based schemes and asset building is often short-term or insecure. Yet social prescribing link workers will rely on these as they look to connect people to longer-term support and activities.

And – as has been commented on by others in the field – community-based approaches alone cannot solve wicked problems such as health inequalities, which require continued investment and attention at the national level and across civil society. For any of this to work, we also need to think about community infrastructure – from our transport to our places.

But I remain optimistic.

The NHS’s commitment to using social prescribing to tackle persistent public health issues such as smoking, obesity, loneliness and social isolation is one that we should all support.

And the new National Academy for Social Prescribing (NASP) – backed by significant funding and support from Government and other agencies – launches its first strategy today, aptly-titled ‘A social revolution in wellbeing’.

It’s great to see goals in the NASP’s new strategy, many of which reflect some of the things the British Red Cross and partners have been calling for:

  • greater investment in programmes with a view to sustainability
  • a focus on relationship building –it really can’t work without those human connections at all levels
  • and sharing learning on what works, identifying areas for further research.

Putting all of this into action and being able to measure impact will be really important.

Here’s our offer of help to NASP as it begins its three-year programme of work:

  • We will share our experiences delivering social prescribing services across the UK, and link in with local, regional and national initiatives to support engagement and improvement. This will build on our insights and work to date exploring how social prescribing can most effectively tackle loneliness.
  • We will work together to build the evidence base and close the gaps in knowledge. We have a wealth of original research to share, including on the triggers for loneliness and what works in social prescribing, as well as barriers to belonging and accessing services for some from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. Moving forward, we can help to identify new areas for exploration especially on experiences of lesser heard groups, such as young mums, care leavers, and refugees.
  • We will support work focused on those experiencing high health inequalities. The British Red Cross is committed to targeting our energy and resources to address health inequalities, and we are beginning an innovative new service and research programme to understand the role of social prescribing in meeting the needs of people who are the most frequent users of A&E.
  • We will harness the power of our networks, our people and our communications to showcase the importance of meeting people’s practical and emotional needs, and to help them to live their best possible lives. Alongside the Co-op, we provide the secretariat to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness (APPG), which is launching a major inquiry into loneliness next week, and have been convening the Loneliness Action Group, bringing together over 60 organisations from business, voluntary and public sectors – many of which will have lots to bring to make social prescribing work effectively.
  • We acknowledge that it’s all about community and supporting the diversity of the voluntary and community sector from large to small.
  • We must all work together to help resources reach ultra-local groups, to build community assets to support local organisations and social prescribing schemes. The APPG inquiry will explore methods to do just this throughout 2020.

Social prescribing isn’t the solution for everyone or everything but it’s an increasingly important part of a package of support to ensure that people’s emotional and practical needs, essential for their wellbeing and sense of purpose, are treated with parity to their clinical ones.

On Social Prescribing Day, let’s make sure we are working together across sectors and to help people build the connections they need to build their resilience and to live well.

 

Naomi Phillips. Director of Policy and Advocacy

 

Naomi Phillips is director of policy and advocacy at the British Red Cross.