An estimated 15 million people in the UK are living with at least one long-term health condition. This number is rising year-on-year and now also includes the long-term effects of COVID-19 and its many health complications. This places a huge burden on the NHS, social care providers, communities and the economy.
Social prescribing has a large role to play in supporting society and the nation’s health, but what does it actually entail and how does the leisure industry fit into this emerging practice?
Social prescribing – also sometimes called ‘community referral’ – creates a formal way for primary care providers, such as GPs, to refer patients to a variety of non-clinical services. It involves a link worker, known as a social prescriber, who helps design a package of services or activities to suit people’s needs. These can include dance sessions, gardening clubs or even just group chats.
“Social prescribing is an approach that doesn’t look to only treat a problem medically,” says Dr Dane Vishnubala, chief medical adviser for Active IQ. “It looks at people as a whole and takes into account the many different factors that could be causing their problem. This could include financial worries, mental ill-health, physical ill-health or lack of support and community help. By looking at the whole person, social prescribing can often help solve more than just one problem and address more than one issue.
“Behaviour change sits at the heart of social prescribing and is crucial to its success. By looking not just at someone’s health, but also at the social elements behind their health and suggesting improvements to their lifestyle, we can bring about lasting change.”
Not just a medical issue
Health isn’t always a medical issue: if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that health is very much a social issue too.
“Many are suffering, not just with their physical health, but their mental health too, as a result of COVID-19,” says Vishnubala. “Ironically – and worryingly – some people with anxiety or depression will find stepping into a fitness facility a daunting undertaking.”
So how can the fitness industry play its part and ensure that those working in their local community have the right skills to be able to successfully signpost people to physical activity?
“Leisure facilities and organisations will need to have a protocol in place so local social prescribers know what they offer and how they fit in,” advises Vishnubala. “Operators will also need to be alert to the other important elements of social prescribing, such as community, empathy and support. It’s not enough to just let people use the gym or join a class: this holistic view of social prescribing must be embraced too.”
Engaging your staff
The empathy, understanding and trust that fitness professionals and personal trainers impart to clients make them very well placed to take on social prescribing responsibilities, believes Vishnubala who says their knowledge, behavioural change skills, ability to listen and awareness of adapting to suit people’s needs are all important assets.
“Fitness professionals would also make great link workers as their consultation skills, ability to recognise cues when speaking to people and follow up on actions to be taken will all be called upon here.”
Engaging in social prescribing is not only very rewarding, it can also help operators keep their best staff by engaging them in this new role.
“Operators that don’t have a social prescribing arm should seek out local link workers and find out how they can help engage people at their site,” says Vishnubala. “It’s a great way for operators to keep the best PTs in the business, especially those who might be slightly older or more experienced, as their life skills and empathy are highly valuable and transferable when it comes to working with people arriving on-site via social prescribing.”
By understanding the core fundamentals of health and wellbeing, the fitness industry can help people on their fitness and wellness journey. Social prescribing gives leisure providers the chance to open their doors to new people and open their minds to new opportunities. This rewarding work will encourage fitness professionals to broaden their skillset and bespoke training is available to ensure they are confident and ready to meet the demands – and opportunities – presented by social prescribing.