Why social prescribing is the future of healthcare

Jennifer Jones-Rigby, COO at Health Exchange, a social enterprise seeking to shape the design and development of health and wellbeing services in a way that will enable everyone to have the capacity and confidence to choose positive health and wellbeing.

The medical profession is often overstretched, with too many resources used for preventable conditions. As such, the national health service is under increased pressure to treat the growing cases mental health or lifestyle associated chronic conditions.

If you are not familiar with social prescribing, it’s a non-medical form of intervention, or plan, to improve patient health through lifestyle changes. Often this kind of treatment is used for patients with underlying conditions which cannot be effectively treated through medication. Patients can be prescribed a range of services from quitting smoking to joining a community-based talking therapy by self, or GP, referral.

Social prescribing isn’t new. This approach has been used in the NHS for many years, with several schemes dating back to the 1990s, and some even earlier.  However, interest in this model has expanded in the past decade or so. More than 100 schemes are currently running in the UK, more than 25 of which are in London.


Jennifer Jones-Rigby, COO at Health Exchange

The NHS England Long Term Plan is funding social prescribing link workers, the workforce who facilitate this service, in every newly created Primary Care Network.

Over the next 5 years they stated that ‘over 2.5 million more people will benefit from social prescribing’ (NHS England, 2018). In the coming decade, there is huge scope to bring this kind of treatment into all corners of society.

The patient-first focus of social prescribing can help to alleviate the burden on healthcare services. If every patient with Type 2 diabetes, for example, was treated through social prescribing and lifestyle intervention, £1,800 - £2,500 per patient per year could be saved.  

Clearly, social prescribing has the power to tackle lifestyle associated conditions, allowing patients to take control of their own health, by facilitating healthier, happier lives. The health outcomes of this treatment are not to be underestimated. So why should social prescribing play an increasing role in the future of healthcare?

Empowering patients

Social prescribing enables patients to take a more active role in their own wellness. By giving patients the right support for their condition, before it worsens or becomes too much to bear, patient lives can also be improved.

One-to-one or group sessions, a service which comes under the social prescribing ‘umbrella’, gives patients a long-term personalised plan to reach their health goals. Patients can set their own goals in partnership with their health advisor – ensuring they are measurable and realistic to achieve.

Over the course of multiple sessions, patients receive lifestyle guidance that will enable them to lead healthier lives, this advice can cover, diet, exercise, or sleep, and can be tailored to their needs. Sessions can also be supported by prescription of a health coaching app, which can help patients to stay on track by monitoring variants like the steps they take, or the amount of sleep they are getting.

READ MORE: Social prescribing ‘must not be seen as alternative to GP investment’

READ MORE: Social prescribing: can it be better used as a pathway to work?

Mental health sessions are another form of intervention. By using methods to empower patients to build resilience and help alleviate mental health conditions, some patients can be free from medication completely. This kind of treatment not only helps the individual, but also their wider family.

A Swedish study found that half of family members of those who suffer from a mental health condition claimed they had developed psychological or social problems of their own. This was to such an extent that they also needed help and support. If we can help just one person from suffering in silence, we can have a real impact on many other lives.  

Helping to prioritise resources

Treating mild preventable conditions early and before complications arise, has the added benefit of making it easier for the health service and clinical commissioning groups to prioritise resources. For example, if a patient is effectively treated through lifestyle sessions, they eat healthy, lose weight, and move more, their risk of heart disease is decreased. The avoided costs of health complications associated with coronary heart disease can be up to £12,198 per patient.

In future, we will need to be quicker at spotting the signs when a patient is in need. Before costs increase, but above all for patients’ health, public health bodies can avoid unnecessary complications and operations as a result of inaction.

Closing the health gap

Inequality in public health is one of the biggest challenges we face, and social prescribing can play a role in addressing this.

Over the last ten years, the health gap has increased, leaving certain communities behind. According to the ‘2019 Health Inequality Report’ from Department of Health, the most deprived section of society spends only two thirds of their life in good health, compared to four fifths for the least deprived. This is a worrying trend.

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Social prescribing can assist those who may need some form of guidance, comfort or companionship to support them in making positive change to their lifestyle

But in supporting patients from through social prescribing, we can help to close the gap for patients from vulnerable groups.

The power of social prescribing

In-community support has huge power for people. By providing guidance, comfort and companionship for anyone who needs extra help in changing their lifestyle, we can make a difference.

Through the service I work with, Health Exchange, I’ve seen thousands of patients’ lives be transformed. In creating a dialogue between the community about health and wellbeing, we can and have, significantly reduced risk.

Social prescribing is the future of healthcare for a number of reasons. With easy integration into the current health care system, social prescribing is the sensible and proactive choice that healthcare bodies need to make today to change the lives of patients and reduce the burden on the healthcare system. Only through embracing this treatment fully will we be able to realise its full potential.


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