"I can now walk 100 yards without stopping, it might not sound like much but at one point I couldn't walk one yard without stopping." (Alfred, patient with pulmonary disease from Newcastle).
Alfred is talking about changes to his life brought about by a health trainer – someone from the local community trained to work with people with long term health conditions on a one-on-one basis. The health trainer is there to support the person to make lasting changes to their lifestyle – such as walking regularly – so that they manage their symptoms better and are healthier overall.
In People Powered Health we called this More than Medicine to recognise a range of social interventions that build on and complement clinical care. More than Medicine connects the clinical consultation with interventions such as peer support groups, debt counselling, walking groups, befriending, one-to-one coaching and community cooking classes. More than Medicine solutions are aimed at behaviour change, building social networks and addressing the social determinants of health.
We were interested in understanding how this approach could be embedded in the mainstream health system – so that a GP could refer directly to a social solution in collaboration with the patient via 'social prescribing'.
The People Powered Health team in Newcastle, which worked with Alfred, put this into practice on the ground, as have a small but growing number of other sites across the country.
So, what do doctors think about social prescribing and do patients have experience of it?
We commissioned a survey to begin answering these questions and, out of over 1000 GPs surveyed, 90 per cent thought that patients would benefit from social prescriptions. Four in five GPs thought social prescriptions, alongside medical prescriptions, should be available from GP surgeries; and GPs in the survey prioritised exercise groups, healthy eating and emotional support as the services they would like to refer patients to through social prescribing.
However only nine per cent of the public surveyed have received a social prescription, despite over half (55 per cent) saying they would like their GP to prescribe them.
These results suggest high demand among both GPs and patients for social solutions in addition to clinical care. More work is needed on which solutions are most effective for which patients, but there appears to be growing recognition that social prescriptions have the potential to enable people with long term conditions to live better with their condition.
More than Medicine: New services for People Powered Health is published today, with a foreword by Macmillan Cancer Support. People Powered Health is featured in a Guardian article this week.