An Activity a Day Keeps the Doctor Away: Exploring Social Prescriptions

by Various Writers

Doctors are becoming more aware of the importance of social networks in patients’ lives. Evidence has shown that those who tend to be the most well-connected with their community also tend to be the happiest, enjoying healthy lives. A strong network of social support also makes it more likely that an individual will take their prescribed medications.
Principles like these fuel growing interest in social prescriptions – an exciting approach that takes us one step closer to a holistic approach to medicine.

Background and Benefits
Mainly being used in the United Kingdom, social prescribing allows health care professionals to access more options to give a patient. The “prescribing” process involves primary health care professionals, such as family doctors or nurses, who work with patients and a knowledgeable community link worker to connect a patient to local non-medical interventions. Referrals look at a patient’s unique lifestyle, interests, and needs. They are usually added to the everyday medication that a patient might use for their health condition. Examples of what an individual could be prescribed include: group art therapy, community choir, walking groups, reading groups, and volunteering. As seen from these examples, interventions are often in the voluntary and community sector.

Now, because the goal of social prescriptions is to help patients develop healthier lifestyles and to improve social parts of their lives, it makes a lot of sense for community music activities to often be prescribed. Growing research shows the long-lasting effects of communal music-making, whether it’s participating in community choirs or group song writing sessions. Specifically, participating in community music has led individuals to feel more empowered and self-confident, as well as leading to reduced social isolation and greater resilience. These consequences are extremely important when we are dealing with long-term conditions and mental health issues. 

Ultimately, the goal of social prescribing is to promote better patient outcomes. This could be in the form of reduced heart disease, better management of diabetes, or improved mental health. In terms of cost-effectiveness, social prescribing is one of the ways the UK is trying to decrease the number of speciality-care referrals and the use of expensive medical treatments for long-term health conditions. Some pilot studies suggest that social prescriptions decrease unnecessary medical prescribing, and, at the end of the day, lead to a more worthwhile use of doctors’ time.

Social Prescriptions: A Broad Health Systems Perspective and Looking to the Future
In healthcare, there is a general “Triple Aim”: 1) to use a mix of approaches to improve care, 2) to improve population health, and 3) to reduce costs per patient. Social prescribing meets all of these points: it is a money-saving option that will help patients with long-term conditions to manage their condition and improve their health and well-being in an ongoing way.

It’s exciting to think about how we might be able to put social prescribing to practice here in North America. For example, the Canadian city of Hamilton, Ontario, which struggles with very large differences in the wealth, mental and physical health of its residents, could benefit from this creative approach. Considering that social prescriptions are, above all, unique to each patient and will use local resources, cities like Hamilton should to embrace this opportunity to use the many community resources and services they have.

And perhaps sometime soon, singing will be exactly what the doctor ordered.

Maggie Li is a third year Bachelor of Health Sciences student at McMaster University. She wrote this blog while completing HTH SCI 3H03 at the Room 217 Foundation.