Helping with non-medical activities


pharmacists walking group: lots of legs pounding pavement

Pharmacy is a “touch point” which could be used to help social prescribing for people who feel isolated – but such assistance often remains unfunded

A new report from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Consumers Health Forum has looked at how social prescribing – the referral of patients to non-medical activities – could help address rising chronic health problems.

The Social Prescribing report recommends that social prescribing be incorporated into routine health care in Australia.

The report was welcomed by the PSA’s national president, Associate Professor Chris Freeman, who noted that pharmacy often receives no remuneration from providing such services.

“The key context of social prescribing to give advice and supports around non-clinical aspects to alleviating health burden is well supported by pharmacists,” A/Prof Freeman told the AJP.

“Pharmacists give advice day in and day out regarding these key social prescribing activities, though given the focus of funding arrangements through community pharmacy, often these activities go unfunded.

“Across healthcare, our health system funding arrangements need to give practitioners such as pharmacists, nurses and doctors more time with patients to address their health concerns on a holistic level.”

The report follows a roundtable co-hosted by the RACGP and CHF in partnership with the National Health and Medical Research Council Partnership Centre for Health System Sustainability, and a consultation process.

It notes that around 20% of patients consult their GP for what are “primarily social” problems, pointing out that these are not best addressed through a clinical or pharmaceutical response, but which still present an opportunity to improve health outcomes, if the breadth of factors affecting health and wellbeing are taken into account.

While surveys have shown that many patients would be interested in these non-medical activities – which range from health and fitness programs to movie clubs or meditation – these approaches are not always readily available.

Of the more than 200 consumers surveyed, 88% agreed or strongly agreed that community programs and services could help their health and wellbeing. But 57% said their GP never discussed using such services to improve their health.

The survey looked at the specific needs of various groups of Australians, including those experiencing mental health issues; those with chronic physical health conditions and multimorbidity; children in the first 1000 days of life; and older people.

It also looked at the needs of people who are experiencing social isolation, noting the overlap between this group and others such as people with chronic and/or multiple conditions, or who are older.

For those experiencing social isolation, pharmacy is one of the “many touch points where people already have interactions,” the report noted.

In a survey of around 140 GPs, 70% said they believed referring patients to community activities, groups or services improve health outcomes, yet most said they did not have links with such services.

RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon said that “We’ve seen this approach used successfully internationally, such as in the United Kingdom and promising trials in Canada and Singapore – it could help shift the balance to focus to prevention and early intervention for patients”.

“With the huge challenges we face regarding rising chronic illness, mental health issues, isolation and loneliness and the resulting costs, we urgently need to consider our approach to healthcare in Australia – social prescribing offers an innovative solution,” he said.

Dr Nespolon said that while some GPs already employ social prescribing in Australia and trials are underway by organisations such as IPC Health in Melbourne and Inala Primary Care in Brisbane, more resourcing and recognition is needed to implement it in a sustainable way.

“Social prescribing offers a huge opportunity to improve patient health and wellbeing and cut the costs of chronic disease, but it won’t happen unless everyone can access it.”

The PSA was represented at the roundtable by Stefanie Johnston, and A/Prof Freeman noted that, “PSA was pleased to participate in the social prescribing roundtable convened by the RACGP and the CHF late in 2019”.

Read the report here.

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