When I was leading infrastructure charities in Hull, Derby and Charnwood, from 1980 to 2003, it was very difficult to engage with family doctors. We knew that many voluntary organisations – and especially self-help groups – could help their patients, but GPs would not refer people. Doctors told me that they were too busy and surgery sessions too short for them to search voluntary sector directories for a group relevant to a patient’s needs and – perhaps more importantly – they were not confident about the quality of the services we provided.
Everything has changed now. The investments made in social prescribing services mean that there is somebody who can "broker" a match between the GP’s patient and the voluntary sector service. The social prescribing organiser can also guarantee the quality of a service or a self-help group based on personal assessment. It’s probably also the case that more GPs are exposed to community resources because of their leading roles in Clinical Commissioning Groups, and younger GPs will often gain an understanding of the local voluntary sector as part of their training. So now we see social prescribing schemes in many parts of England.
We owe much to Voluntary Action Rotherham for its pioneering work since 2012. The most recent evaluation of its project for 130 users of secondary mental health services, by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, found that 90 per cent of patients made progress against at least one wellbeing outcome measure and 60 per cent made progress against four measures. These included increased self-belief and happiness, and improved diet and sleeping patterns. The value of the benefits gained was put at £432,000, a return of £2.19 for every £1 invested in the pilot. Although I find this evidence compelling, I know that many fund holders in CCGs are unconvinced by the "social return on investment" methodology.
The Ways to Wellbeing social prescribing service hosted by York CVS has also shown positive results for 100 patients after one year. Jasmine Howard, the coordinator, told me: "The GPs we have worked with have said that they value our holistic approach and have observed a reduction in the number of appointments for people referred to the service."
Howard gave me examples of people who are better able to manage their conditions as a result of involvement with community activities. "A man who goes to yoga classes finds it easier to sleep and is more able to deal with difficult conditions during the day," she told me.
Despite the good progress of recent years, funding for many social prescribing services remains insecure. In York the CCG is in special measures and the council is using its adult social care budget to keep the service going. In Poole and Leicestershire successful pilots have come to an end because neither the local authority nor the CCG could fund them. There must be a good case for strong guidance from the NHS in order to incentivise CCG investment in these cost-effective preventive schemes.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser