Bolton Clarke Research Institute is leading a project to reduce social isolation and prevent hospitalisation in older people in Melbourne based on a UK social prescribing initiative.

Dr Rajna Ogrin

The Connecting Communities to Care project aims to design a community-based social connection model of care targeting isolated older people with chronic conditions living in the South East Melbourne Primary Health Network area.

The four-year pilot is being delivered in collaboration with Alfred Health, South East Melbourne PHN and the Australian Disease Management Association.

It will leverage a combination of screening, engagement , community based activities and social prescribing.

Building social capital

Bolton Clarke Research Institute Senior Research Fellow Dr Rajna Ogrin said the idea originated when her colleague Judy Lowthian came across a Health Connections program being run in the UK.

“We’ve been doing quite a lot of work in the area of trying to connect people in the community and realised social aspects are pivotal to optimising well being,” she told Community Care Review.

“Judy was looking to see what was being done in the space and she actually stumbled on Health Connections model in the UK.

“She sent me over to have a look so I went over there and talked to people about what they were doing and they unpacked for me all of the differents parts of their community wide approach.

“It was about building social capital, raising awareness about existing supports, building networks and connections between community members, having paid roles to support those who need help to link support, and having an engagement with local GPs and other healthcare providers.”

Dr Ogrin says the program will be co-designed with older people and local service providers.

“We are going to engage key stakeholders to be part of an advisory group then linking with all the local service providers and working with them to co-design,” she said.

Dr Ogrin says at any one point in time up to 150,000 Victorians aged 65 years and over experience chronic loneliness and illness or loss of mobility can further diminish social networks.

Plans to go national

She says there will be a slow development over four years focusing on the Glen Eira region of Melbourne, and it’s expected that there will eventually be a “steady stream” of around 100 engaged with he program.

She says researchers expect that participants will experience a “measurable reduction” in social isolation, loneliness and depressive symptoms, improved social connectedness and mental, physical and social wellbeing.

“Longer term we would expect to see a reduction in avoidable emergency department presentations, unplanned hospital admissions and length of stay,” she says.

Dr Ogrin says the team would like to see the program extended  nationally to provide vulnerable older people with ongoing and sustainable support.

A 2019 report describes social prescribing as a way of integrating health and social services and means of enabling GPs, nurses and other primary care professionals to refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services.

Experts have warned that while other countries are adopting social prescribing as a model of health care, Australia risks falling behind.

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