The appetite for social prescribing is growing.
Just look at the recent events hosted by the RACGP and social running organisation parkrun Australia, or ask a GP if they regularly talk about ways to increase social connection with their patient.
Social prescribing may well become part and parcel of every GP’s role as a preventive health advocate.
When we look for ways of treating depression, overuse of alcohol and obesity, finding a social component can play a key role.
Many of us are already doing this informally, day in and day out.
Chair of the RACGP Board, Associate Professor Charlotte Hespe, last year estimated she was already using social prescribing techniques in around 60% of her consultations.
What does social prescribing that look like?
When frequent patients come to us seeking a chat and reassurance, we provide that immediate social outlet. We then look for ways to help them re-engage, to stop them falling out of society.
We know now that loneliness and social isolation are major risk factors for mental illness, particularly when it comes to depression.
One in four Australians now reports feeling lonely and isolated. That represents a major problem, given that social isolation is associated with a 29% rise in mortality, according to a 2015 meta-analysis.
Loneliness, it turns out, can literally be a killer.
What is the cause of this problem?
Some say it’s our atomised society. Others say it’s the way our suburbs sprawl, making it harder for spontaneous social contact. Maybe it’s smartphones and our always-on society, making genuine human connection seem that much more difficult.
Some or all of that may be true, but I think part of the issue is the fact that we’re creatures of habit.
It can be hard for people to adjust to change – the loss of a friend, the ending of a job or relationship, the difficulty of moving house. And, often, we get stuck in a rut. We can be scared to change.
That’s where GPs and social prescribing can come in.
In our practices, we see almost every Australian – close to 90% of the population comes through our doors each year.
That means GPs ideally placed to gently nudge people towards a richer social life.
That can mean anything from encouraging people to try out a parkrun session, combining gentle exercise and social contact, through to suggesting Men’s Sheds or other community groups.
GPs have always strived to treat the whole person.
In recent decades, we have seen a much greater focus on our patient’s mental health – that long overlooked but vitally important part of health.
Now there’s an opportunity to focus on the social dimension of our patients, too.
Social prescribing is an active topic of conversation within the RACGP. We are debating whether we should – as our colleagues in the UK have done – advocate for it to be more formally practiced and supported
And, if so, can government get behind us to support all Australians in living their best lives with the longest health span possible?
We will go to the evidence base to ensure that what we decide is backed by the best available research.
We’ll weigh up what works and discuss the possibilities of better links between GPs and community services.
Until then, watch this space.