Social Prescribing - An Introduction

April 28, 2023

It is well-known that having a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle is imperative to maintaining our general health. When we move regularly, eat well, and take care of our mental and social health, not only do we feel better but we can help to ward off disease, improve mobility, and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Nevertheless, engaging in healthy practices can be challenging and uncomfortable, or present financial or cultural barriers.  Access to the right support can encourage people to step outside of their comfort zone and is key to developing healthy individuals and communities.

National guidance reflects social prescribing as an important facet of public health, and social prescribing initiatives are being implemented across the country. In this article we will be looking at what social prescribing is and why it is important.

In Wales, social prescribing is defined as ‘connecting citizens to community support, to better manage their health and wellbeing’1.In practice this is a means of enabling health professionals to refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services such as sports and exercise classes, volunteering opportunities, gardening, cookery, befriending, and arts activities. Social prescribing intends to encourage a preventative health care model and empower citizens to have control over their health and wellbeing, contributing to a robust, person-centred system.

Designed with the citizen in mind, social prescribing cultivates a holistic, community and person-centred approach to population health.  A strong evidence base suggests that people’s health and wellbeing are determined by a range of socio-economic and environmental factors. Social prescribing was initially developed in deprived community areas. In recent years it has been recognised that social prescribing activities are beneficial to many demographics, with service provision being extended to include a diverse range of groups such as older people, families, those with mental health issues and chronic conditions. The King’s Fund noted that social prescribing can be beneficial in supporting people with ‘mild or long-term mental health problems, people with complex needs, people who are socially isolated and those with multiple long-term conditions who frequently attend either primary or secondary health care’ 2.In many cases referrals are made in primary care to a local link worker. This is done through a variety of models across Wales, with practitioner roles based across primary care, local authorities, housing, higher education, and the third sector3.

Whilst the evidence-base in Wales is growing rapidly with the publication of nearly 40 reports since 2018 (accessed on the Wales School for Social Prescribing Research website), evidence of efficacy is still limited when compared with England. As well as being personally beneficial, wider evidence indicates that in some areas, local social prescribing schemes have reported ‘reduced pressure on NHS services, with reductions in GP consultations, A&E attendances and hospital bed stays for people who have received social prescribing support’4.In an evidence summary produced by the University of Westminster5,on average there was a 28% reduction in demand for GP services followingreferral6, indicating the potential economic benefit to an under-resourced system. Moreover, the summary notes four studies which carried out broader Social Return on Investment (SROI) calculations. SROI is an outcomes-based tool used by organisations to understand the social, environmental, and economic value being created. The studies found that the mean SROI was £2.30 per £1 invested in the first year, demonstrating increased value across all stakeholders. The summary concluded that the evidence was broadly supportive of the potential to reduce demand on both primary and secondary care, as well as have a benefit on the patients enrolled.  

With early evidence indicating benefits for both the person and the prescriber, social prescribing initiatives are beginning to gather momentum across the country.

If you have experienced social prescribing in Wales, either as a prescriber or a patient, and would be interested in sharing your experience with us, or just want more information, please get in touch using our Contact Us page.

1 Rees S, Thomas S, Elliott M, Wallace C, 2019. Creating community assets/social capital within the context of social prescribing. Findings from the workshop held 17/7/2019. WCVA, Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board, University of South Wales.

2[Accessed 02/03/2023]

3[Accessed 02/03/2023]

4[Accessed 02/03/2023]

5[Accessed 02/03/2023]

6 Kimberlee, R., Ward, R., Jones M. and Powell J. (2014) Proving Our Value: Measuring the economic impact of Wellspring Healthy Living Centre’s Social Prescribing Wellbeing Programme for low level mental health issues encountered by GP services. University of West England.

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