Today we celebrate International Social Prescribing Day – a day recognising and promoting the fantastic work being achieved to support individuals and communities through the route of social prescribing.
You might be asking, 'what is social prescribing?' Well, it’s a means of empowering link workers – sometimes referred to as community navigators – to work with people and help them find local, non-clinical, opportunities to help them cope with whatever issue they may be facing at that time. Most link workers are hosted in the third sector but also work in primary care settings, like a GP surgery.
This week also marks a year since the country began experiencing restrictions due to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. And this past year has seen people face huge challenges personally, socially, and professionally – clearly, the world has changed.
The impact of coronavirus
One consequence of coronavirus has been the magnification and growth of health and social inequalities across the country. We’ve all found this tough, but many communities and individuals have faced larger challenges that have required extra support to just get by.
The bringing together of these two moments in the same week seems strangely appropriate. Individuals and communities are needing more support, and social prescribing has shown that it’s one way of doing this.
But why are we interested in this and what role do we have to play?
We’ve been developing our thinking around social prescribing for a few years now. You’ll have hopefully noticed that in Uniting the Movement, our new 10-year vision to transform lives and communities through sport and physical activity, we’ve committed to working with our partners on ‘connecting to health and wellbeing’ and supporting ‘connected communities’ – two of our five big issues. These are neatly brought together through the platform of social prescribing.
To begin doing this, we’ve invested through our place-based working, particularly in our local delivery pilots, in social prescribing resource and capacity so that more and more opportunities can be co-created with communities, and to increase the number of conversations that can be had with individuals about being more physically active.
This past year has seen people face huge challenges personally, socially, and professionally – clearly, the world has changed
We’ve also entered into a number of national partnerships to explore this area further. Alongside The National Academy for Social Prescribing, we’ve developed a regional team of Physical Activity Advisors, hosted within Active Partnerships and other local organisations who, through the Thriving Communities programme, are supporting local groups to provide better opportunities for individuals coming through social prescribing.
More recently, we’ve joined partners across the government in the ‘preventing and improving mental ill health through green social prescribing’ project, led by Defra and Natural England. With partners, we’ll work with the seven test and learn pilots to explore how to scale up our green social prescribing services in order to improve mental health outcomes and reduce health inequalities – with a particular eye on how physical activity can be used to deliver nature-based programmes.
All of this work on social prescribing forms one part of a larger puzzle of how the sport and physical activity sector connects to health and wellbeing. For example, we’ve worked closely with national partners such as Public Health England and the Royal College of GPs in developing information, guidance and training for health professionals to improve how they talk to individuals they interact with about physical activity, the benefits and how to get involved – an example of this being Moving Medicine. These initiatives are all designed to strengthen physical activity messages and to support opportunities across the multiple, trusted contact points people encounter in their lives.
Social prescribing is another approach to promoting physical activity by those within the health system, so it’s important for us to not view social prescribing in isolation, but rather as a component part that’s complemented by other areas of work – part of a whole system-based approach.
So, hopefully you can see that social prescribing is an important area for us and our future strategic direction – but it’s fair to say we’re still learning about our exact role here and where we can add the most value. We’ve also started exploring how we talk about this work, because the term social prescribing means different things to different people.
It’s been used interchangeably with the likes of exercise referral, person-centred support, community development, individual development, training and development, and more. Clearly, we believe physical activity has an important role to play in supporting people to lead longer, happier and healthier lives, but all the opportunities listed above need a nuanced approach, and to not be lumped together under one umbrella term.
So, as we mark these two occasions, we’d ask our partners, how might social prescribing – and everything this approach to supporting people and communities represents – help the country to recover and tackle the inequalities in sport and physical activity, and indeed society?