Social prescribing provides a potential script for patients outside cities

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Consumers Health Forum
Leanne Wells, Chief Executive Officer

A new report into social prescribing which involves referral of patients to non-medical activities will be of interest to rural Australia.

The report, by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) and the Consumers Health Forum (CHF), finds that Australia should use social prescribing to counter rising chronic health problems that can often elude orthodox medical treatment.

Social prescribing involves the referral of patients to non-medical activities, ranging from chronic pain support groups to health and fitness programs, movie clubs and meditation.

The Social Prescribing report recommends that social prescribing be incorporated into routine health care in Australia. The report follows a roundtable co-hosted by the RACGP and CHF in partnership with the National Health and Medical Research Council Partnership Centre for Health System Sustainability, and a consultation process.

Surveys indicated that while many patients would welcome such approaches, they are often not available. Of the more than 200 consumers surveyed, 88 per cent agreed that community programs and services could help their health and wellbeing. But 57 per cent said their GP never discussed using such services to improve their health.

In a survey of about 140 GPs, 70 per cent said they believed referring patients to community activities, groups or services improve health outcomes, yet most said they did not have links with such services.

While the report does not focus specifically on how social prescribing would work in rural and regional communities, it is clear the potential benefits could be significant given the dearth of health services and clinicians in many rural and regional areas.

The report has found that social prescribing can help prevent and manage physical and mental illness, shifting the focus from illness to wellness, increased consumer enablement and self-management.

The challenge will be to have the resources and personnel to take this forward. The report foreshadows the need for a collaborative approach across state and local governments alongside Primary Health Networks to develop the framework and expertise required.

The report also highlights the need to map existing services so as not to reinvent the wheel, and to invest in the kinds of community services and programs that can help keep people well. Social prescribing should be tailored to the needs of each local community. If it is developed and implemented in partnership with locals it can provide an avenue to improve health outcomes and strengthen communities in rural and regional Australia.

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