By Amanda Moo, ISCRR Research Officer.
Irene [not her real name] suffered a physical injury at work. Although she was receiving worker’s compensation support for her injury, she was having trouble paying her mortgage. Her mental health condition worsened after she rented her home to an unsavoury bunch of people. Irene unfortunately did not have the luxury of family support, having immigrated to Australia 25 years earlier, and her husband had passed away. She felt like her life was in complete disarray.
Thankfully, her General Practitioner (GP) knew of a social prescribing program for injured workers and referred her to the program. She attended the program, which linked her to the government’s housing program and psychiatry services to help her cope with her mental stress. Eventually, she was able to manage things on her own and started to explore opportunities in returning to the workforce.
When a person is unwell, a GP usually writes a medical prescription for the person to take medicine or undergo treatment to recover. Sometimes a person, like Irene, may need more support. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare states that a person’s health and wellbeing are closely linked to the conditions in which they live and work. A person’s quality of life can be affected by a range of social, economic and environmental factors. Social prescribing recognises this and addresses the gap unmet by medical prescribing alone.
Under a social prescribing healthcare framework, GPs can prescribe a range of non-medical psychosocial services or activities such as gardening, cooking, playing sports, learning new skills, and volunteering. These activities are typically offered by voluntary and community sector organisations. Hence, social prescribing is also known as community referral or non-medical prescribing.
Social prescribing and similar approaches have been practised in the UK National Health Service (NHS) from as early as the 1990s to eliminate loneliness and empower people to take greater control of their own health. The King’s Fund explains how it works, how it fits in the UK’s healthcare policy and the future of social prescribing.
It has garnered attention in Australia in recent years as an innovative solution to mental health illnesses and issues. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), Consumers Health Forum (CHF), and Mental Health Australia are calling for social prescribing to be included in the Federal Government’s 10-Year Primary Health Care Plan, which was expected to be finalised in late 2021.
There is a growing body of evidence on social prescribing in the UK, US and other OECD countries. This suggests the model is especially relevant for marginalised groups. There are different models of social prescribing for various community groups. The Australian Disease Management Association compiled a list of social programs that promote social connectedness for people experiencing loneliness and social isolation. The programs usually have an experienced facilitator, allowing participants to get to know people and increase self-confidence in a safe environment.
In 2016, the Social Prescribing Network in the UK listed the outcomes of social prescribing on individuals, healthcare professionals and service providers under six broad themes:
• Physical and emotional health and wellbeing
• Behaviour change
• Cost effectiveness and sustainability
• Capacity to build up the voluntary community
• Local resilience and cohesion
• Tackling the social determinants of ill health
One of ISCRR’s research aims is to help injured workers return to life and return to work. More often than not, we hear stories of workers facing other complications in life during their recovery from a work-related injury or disease. Many of the conditions mentioned earlier are common among long-term injured workers. People who have been injured at work often live complex lives with complex problems. They need broad, multi-faceted support to help them recover and thrive.
Presently, workers’ compensation schemes in Australia are designed to manage worker’s injury through clinical pathways. Given this, social prescribing could be beneficial to injured workers’ recovery — not just managing their own health but also getting control of their life. Based on social prescribing theory, if the issues that injured workers face in their life can be resolved, they will be able to focus more on recovering. This could lead to higher chances of returning to work.
A few organisations have begun to help injured workers through social prescribing programs here in Australia. Happy Paws Happy Hearts, MakeShift and Primary and Community Care Services (PCCS) have run pilot programs with icare, helping injured workers in NSW reconnect with the community, return to life and return to work for some.
Available evaluation outcomes of the programs show social prescribing as a promising approach leading to work readiness among injured workers. Such programs could provide the missing link of social support to benefit long-term injured workers.
On March 10, 2022 at 12pm AEDT, Amanda will be speaking about Social Prescribing at our monthly ISCRR Learning Series webinar, along with Zoe Black, co-founder and CEO of Happy Paws Happy Hearts. Register here to attend this free webinar.
Aggar C, Caruana T, Thomas T, et al. Social prescribing as an intervention for people with work-related injuries and psychosocial difficulties in Australia. Journal of Advances in Health and Behaviour 2020; 3(1): 101-111.
Friends for Good. More than medicine: Exploring social prescribing in Australia. 2021. Melbourne.
Polley MJ, Fleming J, Anfilogoff T, et al. Making sense of social prescribing. 2017. London: University of Westminster.