Exclusive: Fifth of GPs regularly use social prescribing, survey suggests

A fifth of GPs are regularly using social prescribing to refer patients to local non-clinical services, a GPonline survey suggests.

A GPonline poll of more than 400 GPs and practice managers revealed the extent of social prescribing systems across the UK.

Over 19% of respondents said they or their colleagues regularly refer patients to non-clinical services such as debt or housing advice.

Around a quarter of respondents said they use social prescribing occasionally, while 28% said they would use such a tool if it were available. However, 12% of GPs and practice managers who took part said they do not believe GPs should be involved with social prescribing, and 8% said they do not have the time.

A recent analysis of GP appointments by the NHS Alliance and the Primary Care Foundation suggested that 4% could have benefited from the use of social prescribing.

GP social prescribing

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has said social prescribing should become as ‘normal a part’ of GPs’ job as medical prescribing.

Mr Hunt said in June that while a fifth of GPs’ time is spent dealing with patients' social problems, such as debt, isolation, housing, and employment, half of GPs have no contact at all with social care providers. 'We need to empower general practice by breaking down the barriers with other sectors, whether social care, community care or mental health providers, so that social prescribing becomes as normal a part of your job as medical prescribing is today,' he said.

In some areas GPs have led the development of social prescribing such as the innovative scheme in Tower Hamlets, east London lead by Sir Sam Everington. GPs there are able to refer patients to a dedicated social prescribing team which can direct patients to 1,100 voluntary sector organisations.

Dr Everington, who is chairman of Tower Hamlets CCG, has said he loves social prescribing as a commissioner because it diverts patients away from health services.

Some GPs who answered the survey, however, were less positive. ‘It's just another thing to try to remember’, said one. While another said such schemes provide ‘no benefit’.

Self care

One GPs commented: ‘Unfortunately I'm not seeing much positive results with our model.’

Several said that patients should self refer to services rather than going through their GP.

Others raised issues around resourcing. ‘Good idea but there should be funding following this service as already we hardly can manage to deal with clinical problem in 10-minute consultations,' said one. ‘Most voluntary services have costs/fees attached which limits patient access esp to the most vulnerable or those in need,' added another.

Other respondents were positive. One said they are able to refer to health trainers, which was ‘very useful’. ‘If we look at what makes a difference to people, this can be one of the most useful things we do,' said another GP.

Last month the NHS Alliance published advice to housing organisations on working more closely with GPs and CCGs to provide joined up services. GPs, the Alliance suggested, could be invited to join the boards of housing groups.

GPs in north London recently reported that a consortium of 23 practices had referred more than 700 patients in 18 months to programmes including walking clubs, ballroom dancing groups and lunchclubs.

GPonline poll finding:

Social prescribing is described as a way GPs can refer patients with social, emotional or practical needs to local non-clinical services, often run by charities. Are you involved in social prescribing (tick all that apply)?

  • I or colleagues at my practice refer regularly in this way: 19.29%
  • I or colleagues at my practice have referred in this way but not regularly: 23.81%
  • I would refer in this way if I had information about available services: 27.62%
  • I do not have time to refer for non-clinical services: 8.10%
  • I do not believe social prescribing is something GPs should be involved in: 11.19%
  • I am open to social prescribing but have never done it: 26.90%

Photo: iStock

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