As a nation, we rely heavily on our NHS and we’re unique in the fact that we default to our GP with any kind of issue relating to our health. We’re reassured by the traditional model of an initial consultation followed by a referral if necessary.
But often, the most useful treatments and therapies exist outside of the NHS in the form of voluntary local services. All over the country, thousands of volunteers are helping individuals to improve the quality of their lives — from art classes which promote mental wellbeing, through to animal-assisted activities for the elderly.
Many of us are unaware of the range of voluntary services on our doorsteps and unlikely to reach out to them as the first point of contact. To address this, a few years ago GPs began issuing “social prescriptions”, which signpost an individual to one or more local services. Sometimes this involves a direct referral, or it may also involve a middle organisation, such as Age UK.
Intangible benefits of social prescribing
Measuring the effectiveness of social prescribing isn’t easy as many reporting techniques are based on particular conditions rather than overall health. Several reports have highlighted positive outcomes from initial pilot schemes though, including one from Age UK which uses the Warwick Edinburgh Mental Well Being Scale (WEMWBS):
“A small number of older people completed the WEMWBS and reported an improvement in wellbeing — 24.5/70 at initial assessment to 36/70 when the intervention completed.”
It’s clear that many of the benefits are intangible and relate to confidence, overall happiness and connectedness. For example, one participant at Creative Alternatives in Merseyside explained: “I am finding confidence to speak to strangers, to have opinions, and to find a little courage to face my fears. I am becoming more involved again and less withdrawn.”
Whether or not a patient is given a social prescription seems to be a subjective decision taken by each GP. Some lack supporting information to feel informed, whereas others aren’t fully convinced that the referral will be actioned by the service.
There’s also a case to say that each individual should take more responsibility for their own wellbeing and investigate the local alternatives to their GP in the first instance. Either way, whether the onus remains on GPs or each individual, it’s clear that many regions need a simple way to discover local voluntary services.
Making better use of mapping
As I delved into social prescribing it became clear that Empowering Communities could help in three ways. Firstly, one of our products, NearMyStreet, is an online directory and mapping tool for practitioners to promote community events and services. It’s already been developed with community wellbeing in mind and it aims to keep people active and improve social connections.
Secondly, a module known as MyPortal, can work alongside NearMyStreet to enable practitioners to securely communicate with each individual. Importantly, this removes any concern from GPs that referrals may not be actioned.
Thirdly, to further support GPs, our most popular product E-CINS can feature a needs assessment form, which includes a range of questions that each trigger referrals. E-CINS is already being used in this way by practitioners at Derby City Council. They also use it to track the various tasks arising from each referral — so everything gets actioned.
Over the next few years, our tendency to rely heavily on GPs will diminish, as more of us shift towards self-initiated local support. Technology needs to underpin this by helping communities to discover the depth of assistance nearby.