Technology-enabled social prescribing focus group hosted by Royal College of General Practitioners


In April 2019, the Royal College of General Practitioners, in Euston Square, London, hosted a Pitch-In focus group to explore the role of technology in the practice of social prescribing.

Author: Stephen Potter, Centre for Assistive Technology and Connected Healthcare (CATCH) at the University of Sheffield.

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What is social prescribing?

“Social prescribing is the use of non-clinical activities or services within health systems.”

In simple terms, social prescribing is the use within conventional health and care systems of non-clinical activities or services as treatment for health conditions. These non-clinical interventions often involve some sort of social or community activity, such as walking groups or lunch clubs, but can also include counselling and assistance with the more practical aspects of life, such as housing or financial advice.

Social prescribing is based on the recognition that the causes of certain physical, mental or emotional conditions are often to be found in the external or practical circumstances of someone’s life and, as such, pharmaceutical or clinical interventions, if they exist at all, might not address the real causes.

It has been around in one form or another for many years – it could even be said to predate conventional formal models of healthcare – but is currently receiving renewed interest, as policy makers consider how health systems can adopt service models that respond to the individual needs of patients and reduce their reliance on (increasingly expensive) conventional healthcare provision. For instance, The NHS Long Term Plan, published in January 2019, includes a commitment to extend nationwide access to social prescribing schemes.

How does social prescribing work?

“Behind the apparent simplicity of the idea hides the complexity of implementing social prescribing.”

There are a several different models of social prescribing, but the more formal schemes in the UK tend to operate in the following manner.

A GP, healthcare or allied health professional refers the person who they think would benefit from a social prescription to a local link worker. The link worker, who will not usually be clinically trained but will be aware of the various local opportunities and services that are available, works with the person to articulate the person’s needs and establish goals, and to identify activities that will help to achieve those goals. The link worker refers the person to the organisation(s) providing the activities, which will often be a member of the local voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector.

Although this description makes the model sound quite straightforward, it hides much of the complexity of implementing social prescribing: issues arise about the roles, relationships and responsibilities that exist among the various individuals and organisations; about the maintenance and sharing of knowledge about available services; about the availability and provision of resources and money; about inclusivity and coverage; about monitoring patient benefits and assessing cost effectiveness; and so on.

The purpose of the Pitch-In mini- project ‘Understanding how IoT-enabled social prescriptions can deliver value in healthcare systems’ is to explore these issues and try to identify areas where IoT-related technologies can help to improve the efficiency of social prescribing or provide evidence of its effectiveness.

What did the focus group aim to achieve?

The focus group brought together the project team, which includes academics from the Universities of Oxford and Sheffield as well as members of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), and social prescribing practitioners, who were broadly divided into prescribers – GPs, commissioners and link workers – and providers, representatives of the VCSE sector. The discussion ranged over the practicalities of social prescribing, the opportunities and barriers that exist, and the role of technology, both as it is currently used and where it might assist in the future.

The focus group provided an invaluable insight into the real concerns and challenges that face social prescribing practitioners; subsequent activities during the Pitch-In mini project will examine these challenges with technologists and entrepreneurs to sketch a road map of the ways in which IoT and complementary technologies can facilitate and enable the uptake of social prescribing.

Read more about this Pitch-In mini-project

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