Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard: Good GPs have always practised social prescribing

Standard medical care isn't always what patients need when they come to the GP, writes Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard. Greater use of social prescribing could give GPs the time they need to look after patients with complex conditions.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard (Photo: Pete Hill)
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard (Photo: Pete Hill)

Today, more than 1m people across the UK will visit their GP, but not all of them will need ‘traditional’ medical care.

We all know that at times our patients could benefit far more from being linked to a community group, or course, or scheme that could help them combat feelings of loneliness, or social isolation, or which could have a positive impact on their overall lifestyle, and in turn, improve their health and wellbeing.

Of course, our knowledge and understanding of medicine is crucial to providing high-quality care and dealing with symptoms of illness - but as GPs we aspire to be experts in whole person care, accounting for the myriad physical, psychological and social factors potentially impacting on our patient’s health. Sometimes what our patients need is ‘more than medicine.’

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Social prescribers in every practice could ease workload

What pill can help my patients feel more immersed in a community, needed, and give them a sense of purpose? None that I can think of.

Good GPs have always practised ‘social prescribing’ – it just hasn’t had a widely accepted name until recently – and while more research is needed, the evidence we do have is showing benefits for patients, but also can reduce workload for GPs.

Today, the college has launched our analysis of NHS England’s 10 High Impact Actions – part of their ‘Time to Care’ programme, aimed at tackling escalating GP workload. We found the recommendation to utilise social prescribing to be one of the most effective and beneficial for both GP teams and patients.

In fact, a recent RCGP survey found that 59% of family doctors think that social prescribing can help reduce it, while a meta-analysis from the University of Westminster reported an average drop of 28% in demand on GP services following a referral to a social prescribing service.

GP resources

It’s clear that with the right resources for GPs to effectively and appropriately ‘socially prescribe’, the process can save time and money, and have other benefits including fewer drug prescriptions being issued, fewer follow-up appointments, and patients empowered to engage more with their own healthcare.

The result of this means that GPs who revert to social prescribers have more time to spend with patients with complex medical conditions.

That’s why, off the back of our new ‘Spotlight on the 10 High Impact Actions’ report the college is calling for every GP practice in the UK to have access to a dedicated and funded ‘social prescriber’ - someone who our patients can go to for non-clinical advice to help connect them with community groups, activities and other services.

The 10 High Impact Actions are all well-intentioned, and it’s great to see NHS England looking for ways to help reduce workload – something I know we are all struggling with in general practice, wherever in the country we are - but the evidence shows that some are more pragmatic and beneficial than others.

Social prescribing, along with other ‘actions’ such as greater use of allied healthcare professionals in practice, are certainly forces for good in general practice.

This a golden opportunity to really start turning the tide in general practice. But we need the tools to do it properly and I am confident that giving practices access to dedicated social prescribers would be a positive step forward for many.

Of course, it isn’t a silver bullet, and we still need NHS England’s GP Forward View, which includes pledges of £2.4bn extra a year for general practice, 5,000 more GPs and 5,000 more members of the practice team by 2020 delivered in full and as a matter of urgency, to safeguard the future of our profession and the care we are able to deliver to our patients.

  • Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard is chair of the RCGP

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