Yesterday, I heard my ‘good friend’ Dr Michael Dixon (see here, here and here, for example) talk on the BBC about the “new thing” in healthcare: social prescribing. He explained, for instance, that social prescribing could mean treating a diabetic not with medication but with auto-hypnosis and other alternative therapies. At that moment, I wasn’t even entirely sure what the term ‘social prescribing’ meant, I have to admit – so I did some reading.
What is social prescribing?
The UK ‘Social Prescribing Network‘ defines it thus:
Social Prescribing is a means of enabling GPs and other frontline healthcare professionals to refer patients to a link worker – to provide them with a face to face conversation during which they can learn about the possibilities and design their own personalised solutions, i.e. ‘co-produce’ their ‘social prescription’- so that people with social, emotional or practical needs are empowered to find solutions which will improve their health and wellbeing, often using services provided by the voluntary and community sector. It is an innovative and growing movement, with the potential to reduce the financial burden on the NHS and particularly on primary care.
Does social prescribing work?
The UK King’s Fund is mildly optimistic:
There is emerging evidence that social prescribing can lead to a range of positive health and well-being outcomes. Studies have pointed to improvements in areas such as quality of life and emotional wellbeing, mental and general wellbeing, and levels of depression and anxiety. For example, a study into a social prescribing project in Bristol found improvements in anxiety levels and in feelings about general health and quality of life. In general, social prescribing schemes appear to result in high levels of satisfaction from participants, primary care professionals and commissioners.
Social prescribing schemes may also lead to a reduction in the use of NHS services. A study of a scheme in Rotherham (a liaison service helping patients access support from more than 20 voluntary and community sector organisations), showed that for more than 8 in 10 patients referred to the scheme who were followed up three to four months later, there were reductions in NHS use in terms of accident and emergency (A&E) attendance, outpatient appointments and inpatient admissions. The Bristol study also showed reductions in general practice attendance rates for most people who had received the social prescription.
However, robust and systematic evidence on the effectiveness of social prescribing is very limited. Many studies are small scale, do not have a control group, focus on progress rather than outcomes, or relate to individual interventions rather than the social prescribing model. Much of the evidence available is qualitative, and relies on self-reported outcomes. Researchers have also highlighted the challenges of measuring the outcomes of complex interventions, or making meaningful comparisons between very different schemes.
Determining the cost, resource implications and cost effectiveness of social prescribing is particularly difficult. The Bristol study found that positive health and wellbeing outcomes came at a higher cost than routine GP care over the period of a year, but other research has highlighted the importance of looking at cost effectiveness over a longer period of time. Exploratory economic analysis of the Rotherham scheme, for example, suggested that the scheme could pay for itself over 18–24 months in terms of reduced NHS use….
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Is there no harder evidence at all?
The only Medline-listed controlled study seems to have been omitted by the King’s Fund – I wonder why. Perhaps because it fails to share the optimism? Here is its abstract:
Social prescribing is targeted at isolated and lonely patients. Practitioners and patients jointly develop bespoke well-being plans to promote social integration and or social reactivation. Our aim was to investigate: whether a social prescribing service could be implemented in a general practice (GP) setting and to evaluate its effect on well-being and primary care resource use. We used a mixed method evaluation approach using patient surveys with matched control groups and a qualitative interview study. The study was conducted in a mixed socio-economic, multi-ethnic, inner city London borough with socially isolated patients who frequently visited their GP. The intervention was implemented by ‘social prescribing coordinators’. Outcomes of interest were psychological and social well-being and health care resource use. At 8 months follow-up there were no differences between patients referred to social prescribing and the controls for general health, depression, anxiety and ‘positive and active engagement in life’. Social prescribing patients had high GP consultation rates, which fell in the year following referral. The qualitative study indicated that most patients had a positive experience with social prescribing but the service was not utilised to its full extent. Changes in general health and well-being following referral were very limited and comprehensive implementation was difficult to optimise. Although GP consultation rates fell, these may have reflected regression to the mean rather than changes related to the intervention. Whether social prescribing can contribute to the health of a nation for social and psychological wellbeing is still to be determined.
So, there is a lack of evidence for social prescribing. Yet, this is not why I feel uneasy about the promotion of this “new thing”. The more i think about it, the more I realise that social prescribing is just good care and decent medicine. It is what I was taught at med school 40 years ago. It therefore seems like a fancy name for something that should be obvious.
But why my unease?
The way I see it, it will be (and perhaps already is) used to smuggle bogus alternative therapies into the mainstream. In this way, it could turn out to serve the same purpose as did the boom in integrative/integrated medicine/healthcare: a smokescreen to incorporate treatments into medical routine which otherwise would not pass muster. If advocates of this approach, like Michael Dixon, subscribe to it, the danger of this happening is hard to deny.
The disservice to patients (and medical ethics) would then be obvious: diabetics unquestionably can benefit from a change of life-style (and to encourage them is part of good conventional medicine), but I very much doubt that they should replace their anti-diabetic medications with auto-hypnosis or other alternative therapies.