Australia’s health professionals are falling behind when it comes to addressing their patients’ social problems such as loneliness and isolation, which can have hugely negative consequences on overall health and wellbeing.
With 20 per cent of patients consulting their GP for what are essentially social problems, medication is not always the answer. Social prescribing is about linking patients to social services or social groups. A GP, for example, may suggest a running group so their patient can enjoy the benefits of exercise and interaction.
While social prescribing won’t cure loneliness – and all the physical and psychological problems that emerge as a result – it provides a way to crowdsource available resources and help support people who would benefit from increased activity within their communities, says Associate Professor Mark Morgan, Chair of the Expert Committee on Quality Care at the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).
Some overseas countries such as the UK have formalised the social prescribing process and training among healthcare workers, but adoption in Australia has been limited.
“In Australia we haven’t given it the attention it deserves up to this point in time,” Dr Morgan told Community Care Review. “Here, social prescribing works in an ad-hoc way based on personal knowledge and what’s available in the community.
“Plus there are no levers, financial measurements or evaluation processes to act as a driver for social prescribing.”
Roundtable puts social prescribing on the agenda
The RACGP, in partnership with the Consumers Health Forum of Australia (CHF) and the NHMRC Partnership Centre for Health System Sustainability, hosted a roundtable in November on social prescribing in Australia.
It looked at how social prescribing had worked in other countries, including the UK and Canada, and explored ways it could help patients here.
It’s all about developing closer connections between the health system and community services and programs, says Dr Morgan. To this end, the support of local government, as well as those in the local community who have an inside knowledge of opportunities for social prescribing, is crucial.
“Local government must play a key role in providing some level of support for communities and services and ensure social prescribing opportunities are available,” he said. “Then, healthcare professionals need to identify patients who would benefit and connect those patients to link workers, who can match the patient’s needs and wants to the right services.
“We need to tackle advocacy in this space from the top down and the bottom up.”
Dr Morgan is optimistic about the development of social prescribing in Australia.
“Things are changing here,” he said. “We are certainly recognising the need for this, which is a very positive step and once we have a platform, I’m optimistic that solutions will evolve.”
A key aspect of the roundtable was identifying a network of interested stakeholders and partners to continue to develop a shared understanding of a proposed model for social prescribing, Dr Morgan added.
“We will be developing recommendations that we will put to government and stakeholders to give social prescribing a real kick start in Australia.”