You’ve probably had many prescriptions from your GP but, more than likely, never one like this. Social prescribing – a practice that has taken off in Britain, and is heading here – lets doctors improve a patient’s health by connecting them with others through shared interests.
The emerging therapy is based on mounting evidence showing the importance of social connectedness for health and longevity.
One recent study published in Psychological Science showed that loneliness increased the risk of premature death by roughly 30 per cent. In another finding, US researchers looked to more than 200 studies and discovered that lonely people had a 50 per cent higher risk of early death, compared to those who were socially connected.
“Social prescribing focuses on building people’s social connections by linking them with social or physical activities in their community such as local sports, arts and voluntary organisations,” Professor Alex Haslam, from the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology, said.
The unique therapy is not intended to replace drugs or medicine but to complement pharmaceutical intervention.
Dr Charlotte Hespe, chairwoman of the NSW/ACT branch of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, told The New Daily the conversation around social connectedness was overdue.
Dr Hespe said most doctors considered social and psychological well-being routinely as part of patient care – even if the term “social prescribing” was not yet actually used by Australian GPs.
“I personally think that this conversation is well overdue and that this will be a good thing,” she said.
A social prescription worked for Rose Wintergreen, a performing artist from Melbourne who had been bedridden and isolated for a year with debilitating endometriosis.
The 35-year-old said she started making “art-mess” – a term she coined herself – to help deal with the social anxiety she experienced during her return to work.
Initially, Ms Wintergreen did her own paintings in a small notebook, and gradually invited strangers to make drawings with her. She said making “art-mess” with other people gave her back a sense of control.
“Although it’s scary as hell, and it would feel much safer to spend every day alone making art by myself, it’s much richer, and more empowering, for me to take that risk and step up to a stranger and ask them to do it with me,” she said.
Messages not getting through
Ms Wintergreen’s health background meant she understood the importance of social connections for mental and physical health.
But Professor Haslam – who led a recent study on the issue – said most Australians were not getting the message.
“Although research shows that lack of social integration and support are the most important determinants of mortality, we found that people tend to see them as among the least important,” Professor Haslam said.
“Our survey indicated that only around 15 per cent of people saw these social factors to be as important for mortality as they are.”
Pilot studies on the horizon
Dr Hespe’s practice has been involved in a trial examining the role of social prescribing in workers’ compensation cases. The team is assessing whether injured workers recover faster if they have social and psychological support.
“If they are assisted via social prescribing, return to work can be achieved more easily and sooner,” Dr Hespe said.
If the trial is successful, a similar program might be rolled out in other areas. She said the GPs she had spoken to were excited about the trial.
“It gives them formal permission to do the work they try to do, but as a funded and better-supported ‘prescription’.”