GP surgeries should have access to a dedicated social prescriber, who can refer patients to exercise classes, social groups or other activities as an alternative to medical care, doctors’ leaders have said.
The Royal College of GPs (RCGP) suggests the move would tackle the “crippling” workloads experienced by family doctors and free up their time for those patients most in need of their care.
It is calling for all GP surgeries to be funded so they can have access to a dedicated social prescriber, with a recent survey it carried out finding 59% of family doctors think it could help reduce their workloads.
The college said workload in general practice increased by at least 16% between 2007 and 2014 – and with the growing UK population and more patients presenting with multiple chronic conditions, the volume and complexity of work for GPs and their teams is set to further increase.
GPs will always consider the physical, social, and psychological aspects of the person sitting in front of them, and this means they often identify non-medical needsProfessor Helen Stokes-Lampard
It said an evidence review from the University of Westminster found that studies report an average drop of more than a quarter (28%) in demand on GP services following a referral to a social prescribing service.
RCGP chairwoman Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said social prescribing, sometimes referred to as community referral, was not a new idea.
Other examples of activities include gardening, volunteering, arts, cookery and sports.
She said: “GPs will always consider the physical, social and psychological aspects of the person sitting in front of them, and this means they often identify non-medical needs.
“So patients might benefit from an exercise class, a social group or another activity which helps them get out of the house and meet other people.
“Social prescribing is not a new idea – good GPs have always done it, it just didn’t have a name – but we need to start realising the wider, long-term benefits this way of working can have, for general practice, the wider NHS and most importantly, our patients.”
Prof Stokes-Lampard said greater use of social prescribing would mean there would need to be sufficient resources such as community groups, appropriate schemes and classes, along with an up-to-date database in the community, to refer patients on to.
She added: “We hear fantastic stories of social prescribing transforming patients’ lives, but many practices are not equipped to do it effectively, particularly with the intense resource and workforce pressures they are facing.
“Having someone who had a dedicated role to take on this responsibility could help everyone.”
Dr Richard Vautrey, British Medical Association (BMA) GP committee chairman, said: “Social prescribing schemes have the potential to have a positive impact for patients as well as reduce GP workload, and we have agreed to work with NHS England to encourage the development and commissioning of these projects.
“However, in order to inform best practice, the evidence base must be expanded, and new and existing schemes should be appropriately evaluated, including considering the long-term impacts on patient outcomes.
“In practice, social prescribing provides for patients to be directed to other services, including those within the voluntary and third sector, that can help support them.
“Most of these schemes would have an individual who is knowledgeable about the availability of these services, and can act as a liaison between patient and the services, such as lunch clubs, providers of simple home adaptations and community support groups.
“Importantly, schemes should be properly funded and constructed in a way that ensures that no additional administrative burden is placed on GPs.”