Doctors' leaders urge funding of social prescribing in all GP practices

GP surgeries should have access to a dedicated social prescriber, who can refer patients to exercise classes, social groups or other activities as an alternative to medical care, doctors' leaders have said.

The Royal College of GPs (RCGP) suggest the move would tackle the "crippling" workloads experienced by family doctors and free up their time for those patients most in need of their care.

It is calling for all GP surgeries to be funded so they can have access to a  dedicated social prescriber, with a recent survey it carried out finding 59% of family doctors think it could help reduce their workloads.

The college said workload in general practice increased by at least 16% between 2007 and 2014 - and with the growing UK population and more patients presenting with multiple, chronic conditions, the volume and complexity of work for GPs and their teams is set to further increase.

It said an evidence review from the University of Westminster found that studies report an average drop of more than a quarter (28%) in demand on GP services following a referral to a social prescribing service.

RCGP chairwoman Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said social prescribing, sometimes referred to as community referral, was not a new idea.

Other examples of activites include gardening, volunteering, arts, cookery and sports.

She said: "GPs will always consider the physical, social, and psychological aspects of the person sitting in front of them, and this means they often identify non-medical needs.

"So, patients might benefit from an exercise class, a social group, or another activity which helps them get out of the house and meet other people.

"Social prescribing is not a new idea - good GPs have always done it, it just didn't have a name - but we need to start realising the wider, long-term benefits this way of working can have, for general practice, the wider NHS, and most importantly our patients."

Professor Stokes-Lampard said greater use of social prescribing would mean there would need to be sufficient resources such as community groups, appropriate schemes and classes, along with an up-to-date database in the community, to refer patients on to.

She added: "We hear fantastic stories of social prescribing transforming patients' lives, but many practices are not equipped to do it effectively, particularly with the intense resource and workforce pressures they are facing.

"Having someone who had a dedicated role to take on this responsibility could help everyone."

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