Social Prescribing: an alternative approach to reduce the reliance on the NHS and social care services in Wales

Carolyn Wallace - temporary pic

Professor Carolyn Wallace

The Wales School for Social Prescribing Research (WSSPR) was officially launched at the start of April.

Led by Director Professor Carolyn Wallace of the University of South Wales (USW) and co-chaired by Dr Sally Rees at the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA), this virtual school based within PRIME Centre Wales aims to develop a social prescribing evaluation methodology. It builds on the work previously completed by the Wales Social Prescribing Research Network (WSPRN). The network itself has won more than £700k in funding bids to date.

What is social prescribing?

Social prescribing (SP) is a way of meeting the social, emotional and practical needs of people through services in the voluntary and community sector, rather than relying on health and social care services to provide a solution. People may be referred to a SP scheme for many reasons, such as bereavement, debt induced anxiety or social isolation.

SP schemes use various activities that are typically offered by voluntary and community sector organisations. Examples include volunteering, arts activities, group learning, gardening, befriending, cookery, healthy eating advice, and a range of sports.

In England, SP generally involves a GP referral to a link worker in the community. However, in Wales, there is a mixed model of SP that is led by the community. A person is referred, from primary care, local authority or third sector, to a link worker or community connector who works with them to put a plan in place to achieve agreed goals around health and well-being.

Link workers or community connectors engage with those referred and work through the issue/s, providing opportunities for them to express themselves in a safe space. They suggest activities that might help them and where they can talk with like-minded people.

The model itself is complex and multi-faceted. As a result, there is little robust evidence to underpin the practise. The purpose of the WSSPR is to develop that evidence, not just for Wales, but across the world.

The School is overseen by a steering group that has representatives from academia, the third sector, NHS, and social care. With membership from across Wales, the school has been awarded £221,619 from WG Health and Care Research Wales to carry out a three-year research project into SP. Its remit is to build on the work around SP evaluation methodology, to develop reporting standards for publication, and develop teaching materials for practitioners on how to evaluate SP studies.

Prof Wallace has also secured a £209,188 grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) as a partner in a social prescribing project led by Wrexham-based Glyndwr University. This aims to build a model for health and well-being in higher education.

“The rapidly growing enthusiasm for social prescribing and its potential to influence delivery of services in primary and community care have exceeded expectation, but the development of its evidence base and robust quality standards for evaluation have trailed,” Prof Wallace said.

“There is variable evidence to suggest that social prescribing reduces the footfall to GP surgeries of between 15% to 28%. The evidence varies so much because the impact of social prescribing depends on the type of model used, the link workers and their backgrounds, the locality, and the assets available within the community.

“Social prescribing is incredibly important. It helps people connect with their community and improve their well-being.”