What would it look like for the healthcare system to see a patient as a whole person, instead of focusing on just their medical diagnoses? What if, along with medication, doctors and nurse practitioners were enabled to prescribe dance lessons, cooking classes, volunteer roles, caregiver supports, single-parent groups, and connections to bereavement networks?
This kind of “social prescription” is sweeping across the United Kingdom and gaining international recognition. That’s because what makes people healthy isn’t just genetics and lifestyle choices. Access to healthy food, education, employment, income, and opportunities for connectedness all have significant impacts on a person’s overall health and wellbeing. Good clinicians know this, and need a trusted system to turn to for the issues their clients face that are outside the providers’ medical expertise, time, or mandate.
The health care system can do much more to support health promotion and prevention, not just providing care after you get sick. Every point of contact you have with the health system should be a gateway to better overall wellbeing – particularly in primary care, which is most people’s main point of contact with Ontario’s healthcare system.
That’s why the Alliance for Healthier Communities is piloting a Social Prescribing project in 11 diverse Community Health Centres (CHCs) to adapt and measure its impacts in an Ontario context. Running from September 2018 to December 2019, the project aims to bring sustainable service innovation to the front lines of primary health care.
A new way to think about health care
Social prescribing is a specially structured way of referring people to a range of local, non-clinical services. It complements clinical treatments and seeks to address people’s needs in a holistic way. This asset-based approach goes beyond treating illnesses. It recognizes people as not just patients with needs, but as community members with gifts to share, while supporting them to engage with and contribute back to their communities.
Social prescribing looks a little different depending on each local community’s needs and capacity. But the process itself is similar across sites and involves:
Social Prescribing in Ontario
With services delivered by interprofessional teams (such as clinical providers, health promoters, and social workers) and a Model of Health and Wellbeing guided by community governance and the social determinants of health, Alliance members already have the principle of social prescribing in their DNA. This project is an innovative way for CHCs to ensure the practice of social prescribing is included by design. Using client- and community-centred design thinking, participating centres identify all that they do in terms of non-clinical interventions, build a structured clinical pathway, and track the impact of this work on health outcomes through a robust data collection and evaluation framework.
“So long in healthcare we’ve said, ‘You’re a diabetic,’ or, ‘You’re a this or that,’ and we don’t want people to be defined by their illness…. We know that when people feel like they belong, they have a place to be, they have a purpose in their life and they’re not illness or diagnosis focused – their health actually gets better.” – Stephanie Skelding, Health Promoter/Systems Navigator, West Elgin Community Health Centre
This project enables providers to prescribe the most appropriate care, which may be non-medical, by connecting clients to supports within their community through a Link Worker. Clients and community members are also invited to become volunteer Health Champions, so they can help identify local issues and gaps, and develop local solutions.
In the U.K., social prescribing shows promising results in achieving positive outcomes for clients, healthcare providers, and communities overall. Clients have improved mental health, are less isolated or lonely, and are more physically active. Providers are able to use their time more effectively by redirecting non-medical clients to more suitable resources. Communities are also seeing improvements in people’s sense of connectedness and belonging.
In Ontario, this project will enable us to demonstrate, in a data-driven and evidence-informed way, what we know anecdotally – that people are healthier when they’re connected to social and community supports, and when they are empowered to play meaningful roles in both their own health and the health of their wider community. Lessons learned from this pilot will be shared with other service providers, communities and decision makers to help create a more interconnected and client-centred healthcare framework, and build healthier, more resilient communities together.
How to particpate
This project is run through individual Community Health Centres. If you are interested in participating, please view the list of pilot centres and contact information to see if there is pilot centre in your area. Additionally, all Community Health Centres, even those not participating in the pilot at this time, offer numerous programs and activities that support the journey to wellbeing. Please view the list of Community Health Centres to connect with one near you.
- Social Prescribing Media Release ( English | French )
- Social Prescribing Backgrounder ( English | French )
- Spotlight on Reducing Social Isolation Fact Sheet ( English | French )
- Connected Communities: Healtheir Together, Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario, February 2019
In the Media
- New Social Prescribing Pilot Comes to Ontario, Health Quality Ontario Quorum, April 1, 2019
- Better Health Care through Innovation, TVO - The Agenda, March 4, 2019
- Social prescriptions: When a trip to the museum is just what the doctor ordered (audio link), CBC All in a Day (Ottawa), January 4, 2019
- A prescription for happiness, Belleville Intelligencer, January 3, 2019
- Doctors pen 'social prescriptions' aimed at easing depression, loneliness in patients, CTV News, January 1, 2019
- Ontario health-care providers explore social prescriptions to help patients heal without drugs, The Globe and Mail, December 17, 2018
- Doctor's orders: 'Social prescriptions' have been shown to improve health, CBC, December 9, 2018
- Editorial: Forget the pills, play bingo, The Hamilton Spectator, December 9, 2018
- Doctors can now issue prescriptions for free visits to the ROM, blogTO, December 6, 2018
- Doctors can now prescribe a visit to the ROM through a new initiative to combat anxiety and loneliness, Toronto Star, December 6, 2018
- Primary care providers exploring value of “social prescriptions” for patients, Canadian Medical Association Journal News, November 22, 2018
- How social prescribing is changing healthcare in Ontario, Establish Media, November 1, 2018
- Why doctors are prescribing bingo, not pills, to keep patients healthy, CBC, September 30, 2018
- Social prescribing (audio link), CBC Ottawa Morning, September 26, 2018
For more information:
Sonia Hsiung, Social Prescribing Pilot Lead
Alliance for Healthier Communities
416-236-2539 ext 343
Funded by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care
The views expressed in the publication are the views of the Recipient and do not necessarily reflect those of the Province.