A widespread social prescribing scheme based in the south west of England has saved the NHS a significant amount of money.
Researchers examining the initiative discovered that the reduction in GP and hospital workload had exceeded 20%.
The study is one of the first major evaluations of the influence of the social prescribing over the healthcare system.
And it discovered that for every pound invested in the scheme, there was a saving of £1.69.
This can be largely attributed to a significant reduction in the quantity of GP visits and A&E emergency admissions among those who tend to seek help frequently from the health service by 21% and 23% respectively.
Evaluation of the initiative also noted that there was a significant improvement in both the well-being and mental health of such patients.
The scheme is running in the NHS Gloucestershire CCG, and has been operable since 2014.
Central to the initiative is the policy of ensuring that a Social Prescribing Co-ordinator is available to every GP practice in the region.
The cost of the programme is just under £500,000 annually, and it enables doctors to refer patients that are present for non-medical reasons, or whose health needs need to be better managed, to local services including arts groups and exercise classes, and organisations offering help with legal problems or home life.
A total of 2,047 patients were referred to the service up to August 2016, for a range of problems, with mental illness, benefits, or housing as well as help with health and fitness, carers support, social isolation and memory loss.
Further examination of the scheme found that the total number of GP appointment receded by 21%, with phone calls to practices reduced by 6%.
Home visits fell by a massive 26%, and Accident and Emergency admissions were also reduced significantly by 23%.
Report author Dr Richard Kimberlee, public health researcher at University of West of England, commented that he was “very much convinced of the great benefits social prescribing brings to GP practices, particularly among those patients taking up a lot of resources. In terms of utilising primary care, there was a significant reduction in visits and phone calls. With a diminishing welfare state, the pressure on health service providers is exponentially growing and they need to think quickly to stem the tide.”
NHS Gloucestershire CCG clinical lead for social prescribing Dr Simon Opher, a local GP, concurred with this view.
“This study reinforces the increasing body of evidence which shows that social prescribing can help people who wouldn’t necessarily gain much benefit from the healthcare system. People in Britain today are less engaged within their communities than ever before and this project supports them to reconnect. Social isolation has been said to be one of the major causes of ill health: social prescribing reduces this burden and can therefore reduce the stress on the NHS.”
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has commended those who support the principle of GP social prescribing, while the NHS England GP Forward View has also indicated that an increased emphasis on this approach would be preferable.