The third annual International Social Prescribing Network Conference took place on Thursday and Friday last. The two-day conference was online this year due to the ongoing pandemic but that didn’t stop the Social Prescribing Network from delivering an incredible event full of insights, learning and global networking opportunities.
The conference was a huge success that featured a host of fantastic speakers and thought leaders who covered topics pertaining to the challenges and successes of social prescribing, emerging themes and pathways for the future.
If you missed the conference or simply want to catch up, here are our top ten takeaways:
From the opening plenary and throughout, resilience was something on the minds of many speakers and attendees of the conference. The UK-based conference coincided with the anniversary of the pandemic having real impact in the UK and the announcement of the first lockdown. A full year of working throughout lockdowns, remote working and social distancing has been a challenge for a lot of organisations, but particularly in the care, health and voluntary sectors as their services have been crucial throughout. The need for resilience during this time is clear, but there is also a need to build community resilience, as Amy Cole from the Institute of Social Prescribing highlighted from their report on Social Prescribing, based on case studies and practitioners from the South West of England.
Funding was a key issue highlighted throughout the conference. A poll was taken early on Thursday,asking attendees what their biggest concerns were, with funding being by far the most common issue. Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, stated that funding needs to move away from a project by project basis to a steady core source, not just provided by the NHS. Continued funding is a clear issue in social prescribing, with many social prescribing link workers and other roles relying on project funding, leading to short term contracts and uncertainty for those employed through them. It is clear that a long term solution to funding is required for social prescribing to be fully embedded into the healthcare system and to further reduce health inequalities.
Awareness of social prescribing was another one of the common challenges highlighted from the poll of attendees. Social prescribing can still be seen as relatively new in healthcare, even though the model has been around for a long time. During the conference we heard from Dr Christian Figueiredo from Prescricao Social Lisboa, who stated that “65% of healthcare professionals in Portugal hadn’t heard of social prescribing”, as he spoke about how he is trying to develop social prescribing in Portugal. We also heard how essential it was in the UK that doctors learn about social prescribing while training at medical school. We are delighted to hear that The Imperial College London have introduced social prescribing as part of their lifestyle medicine and prevention module with their Year 2 medical students. The work of student champions helped bring about this introduction to help future practitioners be aware of social prescribing as they begin their medical career.
4. MENTAL HEALTH
Mental Health has been a key issue in public health over the past year. The pandemic has led to isolation and loneliness for many, with others suffering from an increase in anxiety, financial worries, domestic abuse and depression.
The Greater Manchester Life Readiness Survey, a survey on the life readiness of young people in the Greater Manchester area, reported a significant dip in hope for the future, lack of mental health support and lack of life skills for young people entering adulthood. The results showed a need for more informal, online, mental health support and counselling services.
The pandemic accelerated the switch to digital for social prescribing. Although some speakers and attendees had already adopted a digital approach, many of the projects we heard from were forced to look at how they could continue to provide their services from a distance.
The switch to digital has also brought to light the digital inequalities that exist in communities. The financial digital divide means there are still those that do not have the devices, or internet connection needed to access services being delivered digitally. Digital connectivity of older people and the adoption of technology is also a challenge when trying to reach this community, for some it may be about providing tools for them to connect and others support in learning to use the technology.
Whatever the challenges may be with digital technology, the opportunities to enhance current services and provide access to wider services are clear. Through digital we can connect people to what they are interested in and to people that share those interests. Sir Muir Gray, Chair of NHS Health and Social Care Digital Service, highlighted the importance of digital inclusion for the ‘Live Longer Better Revolution’. He stated that we are in the midst of a cultural revolution in how care is delivered to the elderly and that social prescribing empowers people to live with purpose, with digital being a tool through which to reach more people. The power of living with purpose has been shown to have marked benefits to health and longevity.
James Sanderson, CEO, National Academy for Social Prescribing said that “social prescribing is all about collaboration”. During the collaborative leadership panel, James went on to discuss how collaboration is needed at all levels, across various government departments and how collaboration between local voluntary organisations around the needs of the individual could be improved. He also spoke about the international opportunity for collaboration to further the global movement of social prescribing, this will be the main objective of the recently established Global Social Prescribing Alliance.
Dr David Robinson and Orla Walsh, of the All-Ireland Social Prescribing Network highlighted the advantage of collaboration as they presented their talk on social prescribing in the Republic of Ireland. They spoke about how shared learnings between the North and South of Ireland and England have helped enhance social prescribing for all.
Engagement was highlighted as a key factor in the success of social prescribing. Engagement refers to the communities that social prescribing serves but also those that have influence on its success, such as GPs and local authorities. The work of the Social Prescribing Network is enhancing institutional engagement, as can be seen by the diversity of the organisations involved in the conference, however, the need for more public engagement was a theme throughout. The majority of people in our communities are still unaware of what social prescribing is and how they can access these services. It is important that awareness and communication is considered when starting a social prescribing project as this is integral to creating engagement.
8. YOUNG PEOPLE
Social prescribing can help identify and alleviate health inequalities from a young age. At a time when new parents may feel isolated from their families, we heard about the work of Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby Project, using music to help parents bond with their new babies, creating a better start for both the children and those entering parenthood.
Young people aged 16 – 25 are one of the age groups most affected by loneliness during the pandemic through isolation from friends and family. A sense of community and belonging are central to combating loneliness. We heard from the Social Prescribing Youth Network and how they were using their Wellbeing Cafe as a meeting place at which young people can find out about different activities and groups that might interest them, helping them connect with a community based on their interests.
The Institute of Connected Communities called for young people’s voices to be heard and included in the design of social prescribing projects and how this can help increase engagement. This sentiment was echoed by who said more needed to be done to taGM lifethink survey reported a significant dip in hope for the future, not having mental health support, life skills needed. More informal, online, mental health support and counselling services.
The need for more diversity in social prescribing and healthcare in general was a call echoed by a number of speakers and contributors at the conference, particularly in regards to leadership positions within healthcare. Diversity was highlighted during a number of the discussion sessions with attendees calling for more diversity in social prescribing. The communities that social prescribing serves are diverse and this should be reflected more in those running the projects and working within these communities.
10. IMPACT OF THE PANDEMIC
When looking to the future of social prescribing it is important to consider everything learned during the pandemic and what this means going forward.
Dr Kate Mulligan, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto and winner of the Best International Social Prescribing Scheme 2019 gave a fascinating report on the impact of the pandemic on the communities in Toronto. The report highlighted the syndemic of a low socio-economic area in North West Toronto. A syndemic is a pandemic that intersects with other health conditions in populations that together are exacerbated by social, economic and political environments, including colonial and industrial legacies. The existing health inequalities of the region lead to a significantly higher case rate of Covid-19 infection than other areas of Toronto. Dr Mulligan highlighted the positive impact social prescribing had on mental health and loneliness through Community Health Centres. However, the call and need to reduce health inequalities is clear and is a key learning that must be taken forward following the pandemic.
Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, also highlighted the high case rate in Manchester due to health inequalities in the region, showing that the problem is also prevalent in the UK. One of the main aims of social prescribing is to tackle these health inequalities amongst different communities, however, the pandemic shows that there is more to be done and highlights the importance of addressing these inequalities in improving the overall health of a population.
Andy Begley, Chief Executive of Shropshire Council, said that now is the time to reevaluate the supply and demand of social prescribing services. He stated that now is the time to look at the resources that are available and to look at the system as a whole in efforts to reduce clinical intervention.
Sir Tim Smit of the Eden Project spoke of how the pandemic has shown us how connected we are to the natural world and how more should be done in terms of educating people on Natural Philosophy. He is working to have Natural History added as a GCSE to the education system and believes that we should be looking to reconnect with the natural world.
As always, the conference was a great opportunity for us to find out more about some of the great work being done in social prescribing and for us to consider how we continue to provide the digital infrastructure these projects and organisations need to do their work. We’d like to say thank you to the Social Prescribing Network, University of Salford, Chamberlain Dunn, and everyone involved in the organisation of another fantastic celebration of social prescribing.