Social prescribing is changing the political language of the NHS - and pharma needs to keep up

A bottom-up revolution of community health services has come from relative obscurity to dominate the healthcare debate in the UK, and it puts traditional medicines in the back seat.

Social prescribing – 'prevention' – has come to dominate the current debate about health in the NHS, argues Stan Jackson
Social prescribing – 'prevention' – has come to dominate the current debate about health in the NHS, argues Stan Jackson

PR people love to analyse communications strategies for big government announcements. And since they have been so few and far between in the Brexit-dominated political landscape, the media roll-out of the NHS 10-year plan was pored over with particular zest. 

One theme dominated: prevention. 

Of course, prevention in healthcare is nothing new. But in 2019 there is a 'brand' for prevention, and a rallying call behind which its numerous supporters can coalesce. 

This is social prescribing, the new umbrella term for non-medical interventions – the idea that GPs can (and should) write a prescription for social activities such as golf, bird watching and bingo instead of medical interventions. 

Not only did social prescribing play a major role in the launch of the NHS plan, it is beginning to have a fundamental impact on NHS policymaking and the future vision of UK healthcare. 

It’s easy to see why NHS comms chiefs used the positive optics of social prescribing initiatives to trail the 10-year plan. 

Arguably, it’s the perfect vehicle for communicating a 21st-century healthcare system. 

The broadcast picture is not of hospital corridors, people in white coats and beeping surgical equipment – it’s of vibrant communities and people doing things to keep healthy. 

Social prescribers say this model will grant better outcomes than medication alone, all while improving communities and social cohesion. Crucially for the politicians, advocates argue this can be done at a fraction of the price of biopharmaceutical treatments. 

Detractors point to a lack of evidence that social prescribing is effective, but in this post-expert world, isn’t a strong message and vision just as important as the evidence base? 

They have certainly made a compelling argument, and it is well-timed, too. The NHS is in the process of re-inventing itself, shifting its mission from being a 'sickness service' to a social institution focused on improving community wellbeing. 

This isn’t all happening at once, of course – the NHS still needs medicines and hospitals – but the language and vision of the NHS is being changed before our eyes. 

It is social prescribing, not medical innovation, at the forefront of this change. 

The life-sciences industry has arguably missed a trick in judging the impact and significance of the growth in social prescribing.

While pharma has been talking Brexit, industrial strategy and drug pricing, social prescribers have been busy driving the development of NHS policy. And they have been doing so successfully. 

The NHS has pledged £4.5bn to scale up services, while also funding 1,000 new social prescribing ‘link workers’ and creating a social prescribing academy and evaluation framework. 

More importantly, from top to bottom, NHS policymakers are now tasked with integrating social prescribing through reforms to primary-care and commissioning structures. 

Of concern for the pharmaceutical industry is that this goes hand-in-hand with reducing reliance and spending on medicines. 

Despite facing challenges on many fronts, industry should ignore the new prevention agenda at its peril – engaging with this topic should be high on the agenda.

Stan Jackson is a senior account director at WA Communications

Thumbnail image: monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

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