How Social Is Your GP?

There could be some surprising and unfamiliar treatments on offer when you next visit your GP according to a campaign for ‘social prescribing’ being launched today – see Daily Mail. Out goes the automatic prescription of a drug and in its place might be support in the community to help you overcome such poorly treated problems as loneliness, chronic pain and stress, or practical ones like trouble with housing or filling in benefit forms.

This comes with a growing realisation that we are swallowing far too many pills  many of which are not effective enough and may come with a bundle of side effects. In just ten years – between 1996 and 2016 – the number of pills prescribed per head in England doubled from 10 to 20. The result is that 15 percent of the population (8.4 million people) are now taking five or more medicines a day.

The damage done by side-effects of this enthusiastic dispensing is shocking too. Government figures show that about 20 percent of patients over 65 were admitted to hospital have suffered a damaging reaction to a prescribed drug.

Providing these non-drug alternatives as a way of keeping people healthier is known as Social Prescribing.

‘The idea is to fill modern medicine’s blind spot,’ says Dr Anant Jani, a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, working with the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) to assess the benefits of Social Prescribing.

‘At the moment, you tell the doctor what’s wrong and they, usually, prescribe a pill. At best it’s going to treat your symptoms. What it won’t do is have any effect on the many things in our lives that can affect our health, such as poor sleep, poor diet, pollution or a damaging relationship.’

The idea that cutting back on drugs could make us healthier was one of the radical/recommendations in the National Overprescribing Review last year by the former Chief Pharmaceutical Officer for England, Dr Keith Ridge. He also concluded that we could benefit from a wider view of what makes people sick and what can be done about it.

‘Ten percent of prescription items dispensed through primary care (GP practices),’ he wrote ‘are either inappropriate for patient’s needs or they could be better served with treatments that tackled what was going on in people’s lives.’

This is what Social Prescribing can do. It offers a wide variety of treatment options such as a chance to become involved with the arts – writing, singing, drama – various forms of exercise, including working on an allotment and some complementary therapies such as acupuncture, hypnotherapy and mindfulness. Nutritional therapy could also be offered.

But even so, the roll-out is not happening fast enough, according to a College of Medicine campaign called ‘Beyond Pills’, headed by GP Dr Mike Dixon.

‘The health service has failed to stop the rise of most long-term disorders such as obesity and mental health problems,’ he says.A new medical mindset is needed, which goes to the heart of true health care. The advantages and possibilities of social prescribing are limitless.’

The campaign is launching at the Integrative and Personalised Medicine Congress in London today. It is supported by such political and NHS heavyweights, as Stephen Dorrell, former Secretary of State for Health, Sir Norman Lamb, former Minister of State for Care and Support and Lord Crisp, previously Chief Executive of the English NHS.

Sir Norman Lamb explains why: ‘As well as an alternative or an addition to pills, Social Prescribing gives GPs something else of value to offer but only in the practices where it is up and running,’ he says. ‘Sadly, there are not enough of these. It should not be a postcode lottery. People across the country, in every community, should be able to benefit from social prescribing.’