Inside the ‘fantastic’ social prescribing revolutionising London’s healthcare

The NHS has been put under significant pressure as a result of the coronavirus crisis, but a new system of social prescribing in London is working to reduce the strain on GPs and hospitals.

After being diagnosed with early-stage dementia Ron Bennett, 65, was given a different type of prescription: theatre sessions.

Rather than solely being prescribed medication, he was enrolled with London-based charity Arts 4 Dementia, to keep his social life active and help prevent loneliness.

“It certainly helped me because when you’re sitting on your own, you’re maybe watching telly, you’re not using your brain, you’re not doing anything,” he said.

“But now I go there and we get something to do, like homework, and it got me using my brain quite a lot.

“I would have just been sitting indoors taking medication and just moping around. I’m really pleased that the doctor sent me there.”

Social prescribing is a system where primary healthcare workers, such as GPs and nurses, can refer people to non-clinical services like community or charity projects for their treatment.

For Bennett, who lives on his own, these sessions have helped his dementia by keeping his brain active and also encouraged him to be more sociable in his everyday life.

“It got me out the house. It got me meeting people apart from the people I know. I got to know a lot more people going there, so that really got my confidence up,” he said.

“We were doing these plays, and we were forgetting the lines but it was just fun. It was just a laugh. 

“That’s why I kept going there. It’s all fun, it makes you laugh. I think it’s just fantastic.”

Those who suffer from dementia can lose their confidence and cognition, and drama sessions help to maintain these by developing new skills and providing the opportunity to meet others in similar situations. 

Before lockdown, Bennett attended weekly workshops at Southwark Playhouse, which saw him take part in drama exercises, creating scenarios and sharing performances. 

These have since moved online but he says that he still sees the benefits as he gets to see everybody.

“It still helps because we still have a laugh and then we have a coffee after. It’s something to look forward to,” he said.

David Workman, who runs the sessions, explained that bar a couple of participants who were unable to adapt to online, there was an overwhelming desire for the sessions to continue during lockdown.

“It felt really important for us to get involved. What we found was the participants really wanted to keep engaged and to keep meeting,” he said.

“I think for them it’s a chance to have some fun, particularly in lockdown, to be creative but also to meet people maybe in similar circumstances and work together with them.

“The participants really engage with what we try to do and make suggestions. We do a lot of improvisations and we’ve seen people develop in that.  

“What we try and do is help as much as we can, tailor sessions and use creativity as a way of keeping their cognition and their confidence going.”

But the benefits of social prescribing are wider reaching than just the participants. 

Ben Halschka, Head of Social Prescribing at Merton Voluntary Service Council, explained how pre-COVID data showed the reduction of patients’ GP appointments by 33% and their A+E attendances by 50%. 

This has meant cumulative savings for the NHS in GP appointments and unplanned and planned care in hospitals and A&E departments for the Merton area.

With the benefits of this system become increasingly clear, the College of Medicine is calling for social prescribing to be at the heart of the NHS.

The college’s new health manifesto, released this month, calls for the extension of medicine to look at patients holistically and consider both their physical and social environment.

“The Health Service focuses too much on medical procedures and tablets, but what we’ve got to take far more seriously is preventing those patients needing those interventions in the first place,” Dr Michael Dixon, College of Medicine Chair, said. 

“Continuity in care is crucial as doctors we are well placed to be able to identify appropriate interventions, especially for patients we know well. 

“A GP with time and who knows their patients well can probably obviate up to half of referrals elsewhere using their holistic therapeutic skills to implement initiatives that could reduce the burden of loneliness and isolation.”

Featured image: Arts 4 Dementia

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