There is considerable interest in the use of social prescribing as a way of improving health, wellbeing and other outcomes in the population. Social prescribing is a key element of NHS England’s Long Term Plan, where each Primary Care Network as part of the GP contract in 2019 will receive funding to employ one social prescriber. Even before this announcement more than 69,000 people in England had an NHS-related social prescribing referral in 2018 and the ambition is now to rapidly scale up to reach 0.9 million people with long-term conditions and complex needs by 2023/24. To do this and sustain social prescribing it will also be essential to work with many different organisations in the public, private, voluntary and community sectors who will deliver a wide range of activities.
This commitment by NHS England to social prescribing comes with an expectation that the use of social prescribing may also reduce contact with primary and secondary care services. However, the robustness of the evidence on the effectiveness (and cost effectiveness) of social prescribing remains contested, with calls for longer term and larger scale studies to strengthen the evidence base.
Our aim is therefore to collate an evidence base to support commissioners in making the case for social prescribing and its importance in increasing participation in activities that are known to have benefits for individuals and society. In making the case for social prescribing it is also helpful to look at evidence on the economic case. Many health promoting activities, including participation in social activities have been associated with a positive return on investment (ROI) to the public purse and/or society. This can be due not only through improved health and wellbeing, but also through increased participation in volunteering, employment and education, as well as through a reduction in the need for social services and in the need for informal and residential care. As part of our review we have also looked at the extent to which economic arguments have been incorporated into evaluation, and in the discussion section at the end of this report we suggest ways in which this evidence base may be strengthened further.