Social prescribing: choosing people over pills

A pioneering new way of tackling health problems in Northamptonshire is being rolled out - where social activities are prescribed instead of pills.

Northamptonshire is believed to be the first area in England to recruit the so-called "Social Prescribing Link Workers" across the county.

The idea behind the investment, which is costing £3.5 million pounds, is to train healthcare professionals to use non-medical interventions to help patients suffering from issues like loneliness and anxiety.

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The project is backed by patients and doctors.

Dr David Smart is a GP in Northampton. He says social prescribing is a good way to develop links between the community and healthcare professionals.

Dr David Smart, GP Credit: ITV Anglia

"What we’re doing is developing the links between primary care and how we can link people to the assets in the community. "The things that you can do, like just going for an exercise, going on a course or meditation, and just trying to help people understand how we can get people who are coming to see us with maybe psychosocial problems which we can’t deal with necessarily very well as GPs and how we can link them to where they can get better help in the community."

Dr David Smart
Relaxation class in Towcester Credit: ITV Anglia

At Towcester's Renew Cafe, people can time to relax at a class being led by a social prescribing link worker.

Doctors in the county will soon be able refer patients to projects like this to manage wellbeing without using conventional medicine.

Celia Stanworth suffered with loneliness after having her baby - she says the Renew cafe helped her feel calmer in the time following her child's birth.

Celia Stanworth Credit: ITV Anglia

“I think if you probably ask people who know me, they’d say oh yeah loads of friends, loads of social activities, goes out all the time, but it doesn’t make you feel any less lonely and coming here means that I’ve got someone to talk to who understands how I feel and it just makes you feel slightly calmer on the inside.”

Celia Stanworth

Northamptonshire will soon become the first area in England to offer social prescribing across the county.

Experts say while the project will cost millions, it could reduce the financial burden on the NHS.

"The cost really is if people are coming to us, then they may get inappropriate investigations. "So some people if they come with a bit of chest pain may end up then going down let’s say they need to check out their heart, and so they may end up going on to have those, when actually the issue is that they are low mood, and they’re what we might call somatizing, when they feel the pain in their body, but actually it’s a psychological pain. "So if we can get them help with their psychological pain which obviously is much more helpful to the person themselves, they’re getting what they need rather than necessarily taking up at that point health costs which they don’t need."

Dr David Smart
Ten steps to happier living Credit: ITV Anglia

A number of Happy Cafes have been set up in Northampton, offering people an opportunity to talk to people and engage with their local community - perhaps a sign that the town is embracing the idea of social prescribing.

The people behind the project say it fills a gap in the system after patients have come out of mental health crisis, when many can often find themselves alone and unsupported, and offers an alternative to conventional medication.

"Many of the issues that lead to ill health can't be fixed by medicines, so it's hugely important that we have the right support in place to give people more control over their own health and wellbeing and manage their needs in ways that work for them and are available in their own communities."

Toby Sanders, Joint Chief Executive of the Northamptonshire CCGs

Northamptonshire could be used as a blueprint for the project if it's rolled out nationwide.

The aim is to reduce people's dependence on traditional health services, which are often overstretched, and get people to engage with their local community as a means to improve our wellbeing.