Social Prescribing: shiny new policy thing or something more important?

By Chris Dayson, Principal Research Fellow at Sheffield Hallam University

Social prescribing is a current UK policy phenomenon. If your local area hasn’t ‘got it’ already you can bet someone will be doing their level best to get it up and running sooner rather than later. But what is it and what does mean for the direction of social policy in the UK? I have tried to answer these questions in a couple of recent academic papers, as well as a TEDX talk, earlier this year, and aim to summarise some of these ideas through this blog*.

What is social prescribing?

Imagine if when you saw your GP the first thing they said was “what makes you happy”, not, “what’s wrong with you”? We know that being happy makes us healthier but public services are designed to “fix” us, not make us happy. If we were happier we might not need fixing in the first place and public services could focus on preventing bad things happening rather than intervening when things go wrong.

This is the starting point for social prescribing: it is a social innovation in health and social care that aims to help medical professionals link people with complex health conditions with community-based opportunities to become more socially connected and physically active in order to improve their health and well-being in the longer term.

How does social prescribing work?

Most social prescribing services operate at an area and receive public funding to place link workers in a GP practices to:

  • take referrals from GPs
  • identify patients’ wants and needs
  • help patients choose activities in their community
  • and support patients to access those opportunities

In the best examples of social prescribing voluntary organisations and community groups have access to additional funding to support these patients to engage and eventually progress to a broader range of activities and opportunities. This enhanced model has become known as social prescribing ‘plus’, something I believe has real potential to change the way people think about and deliver health and social care services.

The social prescribing process

Model - Social Prescribing

What are the wider policy implications of social prescribing?

In areas where social prescribing ‘plus’ has been embraced you can detect a real change in the way policy has been developed and implemented. In my recent paper in People, Place and Policy Online I talk about how these changes come about through a model of asset-based collaborative policy innovation based on the following principles:

  1. Placing service users at the centre of the design and delivery of social prescribing
  2. Harnessing and investing in voluntary and community assets through social prescribing
  3. Taking on board the needs and views of professionals involved in social prescribing
  4. Multi-stakeholder and inter-disciplinary collaboration throughout the development and implementation of social prescribing
  5. Understanding the delivery of social prescribing as a ‘test and learn’ process

In the paper I go on to argue that these principles have broader applicability to other areas of social policy and ought to resonate particularly strongly for the public service reform agenda where the need to provide innovative policy solutions and collaborate across sectors is clearly evident.

However, at the moment social prescribing ‘plus’ is an exception rather than the rule. Although there is a case for cautious optimism current policy interest in social prescribing cannot be disentangled from public sector austerity: social prescribing could easily be used as a smokescreen for further reductions in health and social care services rather than an opportunity to increase the involvement of individuals, communities and organisations that represent and support them, in public services.

The true testing ground for social prescribing will be how it develops moving forward: will more approaches draw on the asset-based collaborative principles of social prescribing ‘plus’; or will social prescribing become a convenient way of asking people and communities to do more to help themselves, without significant public to do this? I think we need a shift in the debate about social prescribing , from asking “how can we do it” to “what does it mean to do it”? Only if this happens, and asset-based collaboration is embraced, will the potential of social prescribing ‘plus’ to lead to real change in social policy be realised.

*Chris’ recent academic a papers on social prescribing can be accessed here:

Dayson, C (2017) Social prescribing ‘plus’: a new model of asset-based collaborative innovation? People, Place and Policy, 11 (2), pp 90-104

Dayson, C (2017) Evaluating social innovations and their contribution to social value: the benefits of a ‘blended value’ approach. Policy and Politics, 45 (3), pp 395-411

His TEDX talk is available online through this link and he has also written this blog last year on social prescribing, social innovation and social value.




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