On Wednesday 19 July 2017, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health, and Wellbeing published a report entitled “Creative Health: The Arts for Wellbeing and Health” which recommended that doctors should prescribe non-medical activities in order to improve the health and wellbeing on the public. This follows a 2015 report by the Citizens Advice Bureau that found GPs spent 1/5th of their time on social issues that are not principally about health.
Social prescribing – the term used to describe the prescription of non-medical interventions – is still a relatively new and underused part of the NHS and reaction isn’t always positive. In 2015 The British Medical Association said it had reservations about "the inappropriate use of scarce NHS money on non-evidence based therapies". But the APPG report, which comes after two years of extensive research and analysis, found that arts-on-prescription showed a 37% drop in GP consultations rates and a 27% reduction in hospital admissions, a saving of £216 per patient. Following a participatory arts programme, 77% people engaged in more physical activity and 82% enjoyed greater wellbeing. Music therapies targeted at people with dementia showed a 67% reduction in the need for medication. Spending money on arts and crafts might seem ‘pink and fluffy’ but if the NHS can get the same or better results from social activities instead of costly medical interventions, and without the side effects, we should be looking at increasing awareness among GPs.
Allow me to get a bit anecdotal here. In my previous job, I worked for a not for profit social care provider that, in order to make up the shortfall in funding from local authority contracts, runs an activity service for adults with support needs. We offered cooking, craft, gardening, photography, drama, baking, a whole range of activities were available and each session was designed to teach skills in a fun way. Join our baking session, spend three hours having fun making bread and biscuits and quiches, the list was endless. But along the way, and without that being the explicit purpose of the activity, adults with learning disabilities learnt household skills like how to clean a kitchen and how to use an oven safely. Clients with mobility and co-ordination issues as a result of strokes, brain injuries, and birth complications improved their dexterity through painting and crafts. We supported autistic clients to improve their confidence in social situations by developing sessions and spaces that allowed both group activities and individual time. Clients with mental health needs got a chance to engage in meaningful social activities - alleviating the loneliness and social stigma that can often come with a mental health need - and often gained a sense of purpose within the groups as they helped other clients out.
All this for £11.98 for a 3-hour session (for clients who didn’t need 1:1 support) plus £3 for materials. Under £5 an hour. Clients either paid for this themselves from savings or as part of the personal budget received by many adults with disabilities. We really struggled to promote our services to GPs directly and I would guess most GPs in my hometown aren’t aware of the services we provide, despite having been running for over 3 years.
Social prescribing has massive implications for the future of the NHS. We could be looking at improved outcomes, earlier interventions meaning fewer serious conditions down the line, and a decrease in medical interventions, all while reducing costs and pressures on hospitals and clinical services. But if this is going to happen there needs to be a concerted effort by the Department of Health and professional medical bodies to make frontline staff aware of social prescribing and encourage them to be more aware of what is on offer in their local area.
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