MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

social prescribing

When I yesterday reported about Charles’ new paper in a medical journal, I omitted to go into any sort of detail. Merely mumbling ‘this is bait and switch‘ and ‘there is no good evidence that social prescribing is effective‘, is not good enough. Charles deserves better! That’s why today I provide a more detailed analysis of what he wrote on social prescribing.

Social prescribing is a concept that emerged in the UK more than a decade ago [1]. It aims to connect patients to different types of community support, including social events, fitness classes, and social services. Trained professionals, often called link workers or community connections, work with healthcare providers to offer referrals to these types of support. Social prescribing largely exists to fill in healthcare treatment gaps. The basic medical treatment cannot address every concern. Primary care providers don’t always have enough time to get to know their patients and understand the complete picture of their lives.

For example, loneliness can cause stress, which can eventually affect sleep, nutrition, and physical health. Doctors may not be able to offer much help for this problem. That’s where link workers step in. They can provide more specialized support if someone struggles to meet basic wellness or social needs. They get to know a patient’s unique needs and help you take action to meet those needs by referring him or her to helpful resources in the community.[2]

Charles elaborated on social prescribing (or social prescription, as he calls it for some reason) as follows [the numbers in square brackets were added me and refer to my comments below]:

… For a long time, I have been an advocate of what is now called social prescription and this may just be the key to integrating the biomedical, the psychosocial and the environmental, as well as the nature of the communities within which we live and which have such an enormous impact on our health and wellbeing [1]. In particular, I believe that social prescription can bring together the aims of the health service, local authorities, and the voluntary and volunteer sector. Biomedicine has been spectacularly successful in treating and often curing disease that was previously incurable. Yet it cannot hold all the answers, as witnessed, for instance, by the increasing incidence of long-term disease, antibiotic resistance and opiate dependence [2]. Social prescription enables medicine to go beyond pills and procedures and to recognise the enormous health impact of the lives we lead and the physical and social environment within which we live [3]. This is precisely why I have spent so many years trying to demonstrate the vitally important psychosocial, environmental and financial added value of genuinely, sustainable urban planning, design and construction [4].

There is research from University College London, for instance, which shows that you are almost three times more likely to overcome depression if you have a hobby [5]. Social prescription enables doctors to provide their patients with a bespoke prescription that might help them at a time of need …

When we hear that a quarter of 14–16-year-old girls are self-harming and almost a third of our children are overweight or obese, it should make us realise that we will have to be a bit more radical in addressing these problems [5]. And though social prescription cannot do everything, I believe that, used imaginatively, it can begin to tackle these deep-rooted issues [6]. As medicine starts to grapple with these wider determinants of health [7], I also believe that medicine will need to combine bioscience with personal beliefs, hopes, aspirations and choices [8].

Many patients choose to see complementary practitioners for interventions such as manipulation, acupuncture and massage [9]. Surely in an era of personalised medicine, we need to be open-minded about the choices that patients make and embrace them where they clearly improve their ability to care for themselves? [10] Current NHS guidelines on pain that acknowledge the role of acupuncture and mindfulness may lead, I hope, to a more fruitful discussion on the role of complementary medicine in a modern health service [11]. I have always advocated ‘the best of both worlds’ [12], bringing evidence-informed [13] conventional and complementary medicine together and avoiding that gulf between them, which leads, I understand, to a substantial proportion of patients feeling that they cannot discuss complementary medicine with their doctors [14].

I believe it is more important than ever that we should aim for this middle ground [15]. Only then can we escape divisions and intolerance on both sides of the conventional/complementary equation where, on the one hand, the appropriate regulation of the proven therapies of acupuncture and medical herbalism [15] is opposed while, on the other, we find people actually opposing life-saving vaccinations. Who would have thought, for instance, that in the 21st century that there would be a significant lobby opposing vaccination, given its track record in eradicating so many terrible diseases and its current potential to protect and liberate some of the most vulnerable in our society from coronavirus? [16] …

My comments are as follows:

  1. Is Charles not a little generous to his own vision? Social prescribing is not nearly the same as the concept of integrated medicine which he has been pushing for years.
  2. There is no good evidence that social prescribing will reduce ‘of long-term disease, antibiotic resistance, and opiate dependence’.
  3. Here Charles produces a classic ‘strawman fallacy’. Medicine is much more than pills and procedures, and I suspect he knows it (not least because he uses proper medicine as soon as he is really ill).
  4. Charles has not so much ‘demonstrated’ the importance of ‘psychosocial, environmental and financial added value of genuinely, sustainable urban planning, design, and construction’ as talked about it.
  5. That does not necessarily mean that social prescribing is effective; correlation is not causation!
  6. There is no good evidence that social prescribing is effective against self-harm or obesity.
  7. Medicine has been trying to grapple with ‘wider issues’ for centuries.
  8. Medicine has done that for many years but we always had to be mindful of the evidence base. It would be unwise to adopt interventions without evidence demonstrating that they do more good than harm.
  9. Many patients also choose to smoke, drink, or sky-dive. Patient choice is no indicator of efficacy or harmlessness.
  10. Yes, we should embrace them where they clearly improve their ability to care for themselves. However, the evidence all too often fails to show that they improve anything.
  11. As we have seen, this discussion has been going on for decades and was not always helped by Charles.
  12. The best of both worlds can only be treatments that demonstrably generate more good than harm – and that’s called evidence-based medicine. Or, to put it bluntly: in medicine ‘best’ does not signify royal approval.
  13. ‘Evidence-informed’ is an interesting term. Proper medicine thrives to be evidence-based; royal medicine merely needs to be ‘evidence-informed’? This new term seems to imply that evidence is not all that important. Why? Perhaps because, for alternative medicine, it is largely not based on good evidence?
  14. If we want to bridge the gulf, we foremost require sound evidence. Today, plenty of such evidence is available. The problem is that it does often not show what Charles seems to think it shows.
  15. Even the best regulation of nonsense must result in nonsense.
  16. The anti-vaccination sentiments originate to an alarmingly large extent from the realm of alternative medicine.[4]

REFERENCES

[1] Brandling J, House W. Social prescribing in general practice: adding meaning to medicine. Br J Gen Pract. (2009) 59:454–6. doi: 10.3399/bjgp09X421085

[2] Social Prescribing: Definition, Examples, and More (healthline.com)

[3] Schmidt K, Ernst E. MMR vaccination advice over the Internet. Vaccine. 2003 Mar 7;21(11-12):1044-7. doi: 10.1016/s0264-410x(02)00628-x. PMID: 12559777.

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