A new project where GPs will refer patients for a spot of yoga or a cookery class rather than prescribing medication could “transform” the health service, one of Northern Ireland’s top civil servants has said.
The new project is to get under way in 60 GP practices across Northern Ireland and will see patients referred for community-based activities such as “arts, group learning, counselling sessions, cookery, befriending schemes, healthy lifestyle support, sports and yoga”, the Department of Health has said.
Permanent Secretary, Richard Pengelly, believes the new project known as ‘social prescribing’ could help transform the health service.
The department is pointing to similar projects in Bristol and Rotherham, where there was a reduction in inpatient admissions, A&E attendances and outpatient appointments.
The Northern Ireland version will run over the course of the next three years, in 60 GP practices, and is expected to cover around 4,000 adults.
Mr Pengelly said: “It is a sad fact that the more disadvantaged people’s circumstances are, the worse their health is likely to be.
“It is a huge challenge for government to narrow the health gap between the most and the least deprived areas so everyone in society has an equal chance of experiencing good health and well-being.”
He added: “The extent to which we have control of our lives, have good social connections and live in healthy, safe neighbourhoods, are all important influences on good physical and mental health. Those who find themselves excluded from society, discriminated against, or lacking power and control through living in poverty, can be the least likely to access and benefit from traditional services, despite often having the worst health and greatest need.
“Social prescribing recognises the role that our voluntary and community sector partners and crucially clients and service users have to play in improving health and well-being outcomes.
“We wish this project the very best of success. GPs can refer patients to take part in community activities which will reduce their isolation and dependence on medication whilst reducing pressures on GPs and other healthcare professionals.
“I’m sure this programme will have a positive impact on many people who engage with it over the next few years and I look forward to watching its development.”
The new ‘social prescribing’ project will run in conjunction with a similar version in Scotland.