Social prescribing in one South Yorkshire town could save local NHS services over £1m over the next five years - and have a huge impact on those suffering from loneliness or social isolation, researchers have found.
GPs in Rotherham have piloted social prescribing, where patients are prescribed non-medical treatments such as tai chi, lunch clubs or a befriending service, since 2012. Now analysts from Sheffield Hallam University have found the service reduced inpatient hospital stays by 11 per cent and A&E admissions by 17 per cent - with potential savings of £1.1m over the next five years.
More than 2,000 people with long-term health conditions, and those at risk of hospital admission, have been referred to Voluntary Action Rotherham for a social prescription.
It links patients up to more than 20 projects, ranging from arts and crafts to laughter yoga, lunch clubs, environmental projects and walking clubs.
Linda Jarrold, development manager at Voluntary Action Rotherham, said extra help was given to those who might have been socially isolated for a long time, with volunteer befrienders helping to build up their confidence before taking them to activities.
She said: “One lady, whose partner had died, told us she only knew three phone numbers - two of which were her doctor and dentist. A lot of people can end up depressed or anxious when they are lonely, and if they have health problems as well they find it difficult to go out.
“Other than going to the doctor, some people hadn’t been out of the door for years, so it’s quite a big step to get them out on their own. Having a befriender or mentor there breaks down these barriers.”
She said GPs in the town had become “big converts” of the scheme.
“For a lot of people going to GPs, the under-laying issue was a social one,” Ms Jarrold said. “Before, GPs hadn’t known what was on offer. Now, they know they can refer them to speak to one of our advisors, which is wonderful.”
Voluntary Action Rotherham signposts people to services already existing in the community, ran by organisations such as the Royal Voluntary Service, Rotherham United Community Supporters Trust, the British Red Cross and Age UK, which ran a similar pilot in Leeds.
The evaluation, by Hallam’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), found even better reductions in those aged 80 and under, and for those who engaged with voluntary sector-led activities over a sustained period. 82 per cent of service users, regardless of age or gender, also reported a positive change in their well-being within four months of being issued with a social prescription.
Ms Jarrold said the report provided “external validation” that could help the project, which is still on-going, secure funding in future.
Chris Dayson from CRESR said: “Rotherham is one of the largest and most well-developed examples of social prescribing in the UK and the findings are really positive. We’ve been able to identify reductions in patients’ use of key hospital services in the 12 months following their referral to the pilot.
“Alongside this we have seen improvements in patients’ well-being, confidence and independence, with fewer people feeling socially isolated and lonely.
“We are hoping that, as the evidence base grows for involving the local voluntary and community sector in supporting people with long-term health issues, the health and well-being benefits will become more apparent.”
Sarah Whittle, assistant chief officer of NHS Rotherham CCG, said: “The service is a win-win for all involved – it’s a win for us as it reduces admissions into hospital; it’s a win for the voluntary and community sector as it helps them to be more sustainable and most importantly it’s a win for patients and carers.
“They tell us they love it as it improves their quality of life, reduces social isolation and moves them from dependence to independence.”