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'Our Special Friends is the kind of social prescribing that can make a real difference to a person’s health' says Matt Hancock

People go to see their GPs for all sorts of reasons, but it is estimated that 20 per cent of medical appointments are for social rather than medical problems.

In many cases, the patient is looking for the treatment to their problem to come in the form of a pill. But sometimes, the answer lies in social prescribing not medicinal prescribing. I want to see this sort of social prescribing used much more.

GPs and other health professionals can prescribe patients, who are socially isolated, suffer from anxiety or who are depressed to take part in activities, instead of simply writing them a prescription for medication.

Matt Hancock visited Our Special Friends.
Matt Hancock visited Our Special Friends.

These activities can be as diverse as dancing, bingo, yoga, knitting, gardening, going for a walk, arts and crafts, joining a running group or singing. There really is no limit to the types of activities that might fit the bill, so people can have meaningful social interactions with other people, with possibly with a bit of physical activity thrown in, as appropriate.

Social prescribing also involves putting patients in touch with a link worker who can advise them as how to access activities and support in their community. By April 2021, the NHS plans to recruit 1,000 of these link workers and by 2023-24, social prescribers will be handling around 900,000 patient appointments a year.

When I was appointed Health Secretary in the summer of 2018, the commitment to social prescribing was one of the first announcements I made. At that time, we pledged £4.5 million towards social prescribing, funding 23 projects in England, either by extending existing schemes or by the development of new ones.

The goal is that social prescribing will help to address people’s physical and mental wellbeing and reduce pressure on NHS services. And in addition to helping the lonely or depressed, these programmes can also provide support for those from transgender or minority backgrounds who are also impacted by health inequalities.

To further the social prescribing agenda, we will create a National Academy for Social Prescribing to be the champion of, build the research base, and set out the benefits of social prescribing across the board from the arts to physical exercise to nutritional advice and community classes.

A referral to Our Special Friends can come from a GP when the doctor feels that the patient would benefit from the companionship that an animal can offer - Matt Hancock

Of course, social prescribing is not the answer in all cases, but it is a useful option that GPs have that can be used in lieu of prescribing medication or in conjunction with it. According to GPonline, one in four GPs now practise social prescribing. It can help to combat the over-medicalisation of patients as well as improving patients’ chances of recovering from their illness.

Very recently, I saw social prescribing in action when I was able to meet some of the fantastic volunteers from Our Special Friends in Newmarket.

As a charitable organisation, Our Special Friends helps people continue to benefit from animal companionship by providing practical and emotional support during illness, bereavement or other crises. A referral to Our Special Friends can come from a GP when the doctor feels that the patient would benefit from the companionship that an animal can offer. This may be a regularly scheduled visit from an OSF volunteer and their dog or other animal, helping someone to retain the companionship of an animal or possibly providing the patient with an animal that needs to be rehomed.

OSF also works with patients who are afflicted with dementia and offers them the social interaction of a visit from a volunteer and an animal – sometimes also going for walks which helps with the patient’s mobility.

I was thoroughly impressed by OSF and the simple, but hugely effective, way that this kind of social prescribing can make a real difference to a person’s social and emotional life and their health outcomes.

I see social prescribing as fundamental to prevention.

And I see prevention as fundamental to the future of the NHS. We must all work together as a society to keep ourselves healthy, both physically and mentally. And social prescribing, whether done by a health care professional or doing it ourselves by joining a group, taking up a hobby or sport, and getting out to be with other people in our community, can do a world of good.