Prescribing social activities is the latest medical strategy for living longer

Come together.
Come together.
Image: Reuters/Jose Luis Gonzalez
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Last month the UK government announced a nationwide strategy for combating loneliness. Now, it wants to tackle some of the health problems related to living longer through “social prescription,” where doctors advise patients on types of social activity that could ease symptoms, as well as prescribing medicines for their ailments.

In a strategy released (pdf) today (Nov. 5) the Department of Health and Social Care said that health services should attempt to treat the entire person, not just their symptoms. This could include asking general practitioners (GPs) to think more broadly about what their patients might need to feel healthier and happier. In practice, alongside any medication needed, they might suggest an art club or a walking group, the report said, and then connect their patient with the relevant service. The strategy is aimed at people living with long-term health conditions, including older people.

Some of the services could be delivered by groups that use volunteers to, for example, accompany a person with confidence or mobility problems to an activity. The report cited one such service based in Rotherham, a borough in the north of England, which ran a craft club and a group dedicated to knitting and conversation. It found (pdf) that 82% of its users had experienced “positive change” three to four months after starting to participate in the activities.

At 81.4 years old, the UK has one of the highest life expectancies in the world, but has struggled to improve on that figure in recent years, with cuts to social services being cited by public health experts as partly to blame. Much of healthcare is delivered through the National Health Service, a huge institution paid for through taxation that ensures critical healthcare is free at the point of delivery. The NHS is chronically underfunded, however, meaning that GP waiting times are often very high and appointment times have been squeezed ever shorter. An edict from on high to take a more holistic approach might well make some doctors raise their eyebrows.

In a speech given to coincide with the report, the secretary of state for health and social care, Matt Hancock, also suggested that people should take more responsibility for maintaining their long-term health, for example by eating well and giving up smoking. The speech, which included the statement that “focusing on the responsibilities of patients shouldn’t be about penalizing people but about helping people to make better choices,” drew criticism from some quarters for “victim blaming.” Simon Capewell, a professor of public health and policy at Liverpool University, told the Guardian that “people do not ‘choose’ obesity or diabetes or cancer. They have just been overwhelmed by a toxic environment.”