Social prescribing - what's in a name?

Date posted: 14th March 2019

Linda Vernon, Digital Leader for Empower the person at Healthier Lancashire and South Cumbria on social prescribing

Today (Thursday 14 March 2019) is the very first international Social Prescribing Day #SocialPrescribingDay.

Social prescribing is a much-used buzz-word of late and in the UK we’re seen as leading the way in this ‘new’ activity that is seen to be an answer to some of the big challenges to modern healthcare:

  • Mental health conditions, which approximately 1 in 4 of us will experience each year.
  • Social problems such as difficulties with finances, employment or relationships, which are thought to account for up to 1 in 5 GP visits in the UK. 
  • Loneliness, which up to one fifth of us report affects us most or all of the time, and is linked to poorer lifestyle behaviours and higher rates of some health conditions.

Video - social prescribing and our plans for Lancashire and South Cumbria


What do we mean by social prescribing?

Really, it’s nothing new. As a physiotherapist, I helped people access fitness classes in leisure facilities, funded by their GPs, at least 15 years ago. I have, over the years, helped my patients find peer-support groups, charities that support their health condition, physical activities that will help them recover from injury and prevent recurrence, and I’ve recommended meditation classes that had helped transform my life, reducing my stress levels, giving me some inner peace and helping me to think differently which in turn influenced how I live my life. And over the past 20 years or more of my adult life, I have also joined thousands of people climbing mountains in the Lake District each weekend, I’ve enjoyed photography classes, speakers’ clubs, yoga classes and Parkrun, and I’ve seen first-hand the benefits that small grass-roots social enterprises, charities, community and faith groups offer the people who use their services.

So, the positive impact on our wellbeing we gain through the arts, through nature, through connection with others, through activity or learning new skills, and through volunteering our time and energy to support others – isn’t something we’ve just realised is so important to health and wellbeing, it’s merely that the research evidence is catching up! Ask anyone walking the fells, or playing crown green bowling, or attending a sewing club with friends, or singing in a community choir whether there are health benefits and you will hear a resounding yes

The bit that’s new about social prescribing is really the prescribing bit: the concept that when a GP or physiotherapist or paramedic, or indeed anyone else connected with their health or care, meets a person who has more social needs than medical, or social needs that might complicate or exacerbate medical problems, instead of (just) prescribing pills, they might make a ‘prescription’ for a social activity. This connects people with other people and with activities that might help address their need for exercise, their loneliness, their difficulties managing finances or getting a job. 

Current evidence suggests that only approximately 15% of health outcomes are directly related to healthcare, the rest are linked to lifestyle behaviours, social and environmental circumstances, personal relationships, genetics, and so on. We now recognise that investing in the management of these wider determinants could have much more impact on someone’s sense of wellbeing than healthcare interventions are likely to have.

Definitions of social prescribing

The difficulty with social prescribing for me comes with the word ‘prescribe’. Implicit in this is the concept that something is done to a person. And social prescribing is very much not about being done to, it’s much more about having a conversation that helps establish “what matters to you?” It’s about exploring your strengths and your interests, and your needs and desires, and what support might be needed to enable you as a unique individual to decide what opportunities might exist in your community or local area to help you, and how you will actually make it happen! 

As Michelle Pilling, Lay Advisor Quality and Patient Involvement and Deputy Chair of NHS East Lancashire Clinical Commissioning Group, says:“There is nothing prescriptive about social prescribing.”

But the term is probably here to stay.  So, at Healthier Lancashire and South Cumbria, we are starting to explore how we can support community resources and individuals who might benefit from them, to access such services more conveniently, more fairly and when they need them. We are keen to listen to our patients and public, particularly those who have had experience of when social prescribing went well, or not so well, so we can learn from your experiences. We are also exploring how technology can be used to support this, whether someone is accessing community services through an app or website, or being guided by a health care practitioner or connector from within health and care systems. We are also talking to our voluntary, charity and faith sector service colleagues to find out how they might be able to link in with those care givers through digital technology. 

How you can get involved

If you would like to know more about any of these pieces of work, or get involved, then please email me at or tweet me @VernonLinda.

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