A Walk in the Park – Just What the Doctor Ordered

When we go to see our GP, most of us expect to walk away with a prescription in our hand. But what if, instead of a week’s worth of tablets, the prescription was for a walk in the park, or a visit to an art gallery?

Social Prescribing

That’s the thinking behind ‘social prescribing’ – a relatively new idea that recognises that our health and wellbeing are influenced by non-clinical factors. These can include how much exercise we take, how well we eat and how much time we spend with other people.

Dr Stephanie Tierney, a researcher in evidence synthesis at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, is part of a group of academics collaborating with the University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums (GLAM) team to look at what social prescribing can offer. It’s a development that recognises that medical tests and tablets ‘aren’t always going to be the solution to everybody’s problems. Even if they go to the doctor with a health issue, it may be that there are other things that could help them.’

We all know isolated people, for example, who might benefit from joining a walking group, or others who would enjoy the mental stimulation and companionship of an evening class. Or, as Dr Tierney says: ‘If you go to a museum and start looking at objects, it can distract you from the problems in your life – or it might just give you a bit of time looking at something beautiful or interesting and make you think differently even just for 10 or 15 minutes.’

A cross-fertilisation of ideas

The collaboration came about as the result of a serendipitous conversation between Dr Tierney’s colleague Dr Kamal Mahtani, who is Director of our MSc in EBHC Systematic Reviews, and Lucy Shaw, Head of Programmes and Partnerships at GLAM.

Mahtani found that GLAM were already ‘doing a lot of activities about promoting health and trying to support people with their wellbeing,’ says Dr Tierney. Because social prescribing is all about ‘addressing people’s non-medical needs through accessing voluntary and community sector services,’ the pair spotted an opportunity for the ‘cross-fertilisation of interesting ideas.’

The two teams have now been working together for about six months.

For the first year, the project is being supported by knowledge exchange funding from the University. The focus will initially be on enabling academics, clinicians, policy makers and members of the public to share ideas and learn from each other, as well as raising public awareness and improving the evidence base on social prescribing. 

One of the first big ventures will be to hold two workshops in July, one for members of the public and the other for key stakeholders, including commissioners, service providers and policymakers.

The first year will also include a review of the literature on social prescribing and a report that showcases some of the work that GLAM is doing in the area. As a result of the workshops, the teams hope to identify gaps and develop new ideas for research. 

Social prescribing – a holistic approach to health

The team has carried out a survey of clinical commissioning groups in England, which found that many are already doing some social prescribing.

‘It’s quite heterogeneous in the way that they’re rolling it out,’ says Dr Tierney. ‘In some places it’s receptionists who are being trained to support patients with social prescribing, and in other places they have dedicated link workers or care navigators who probably have more time to spend with patients and support them.’

One of the challenges of the project will be to sell the idea of social prescribing to the public. ‘I don’t think it’s a term that has coherence and it’s something that can be interpreted in different ways by different people. If your doctor suggests a social prescribing activity, are you going to see it positively or could you see it as the doctor dismissing your problem?’ says Dr Tierney. ‘We need to think how we educate or support patients to recognise that it is not a second-best approach to looking after their health and wellbeing, it’s an alternative – and in some cases it may be better than going to see the GP. It may be that the voluntary community sector could support their needs better.’

Because social prescribing is an emerging practice, there is still plenty to learn. But ultimately it could herald a more rounded approach to looking after people’s wellbeing, says Dr Tierney: ‘It’s more than just the physical. It’s the social, it’s the environment and the economic. So many things can affect people’s health, so it’s trying to take a holistic view of people and their needs.’

If you are interested in finding out more about the project, please email glamwellbeing@phc.ox.ac.uk. Further information on the Department's programmes in Evidence-Based Health Care can be found on our website.

Published 1 April 2019