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Joint call for national social prescribing scheme


Matt Woodley


20/10/2021 4:39:53 PM

A number of medical organisations, including the RACGP, say support for social prescribing should be included in the 2021 MYEFO.

Friends sitting and talking
Social prescribing has been shown to improve both physical and mental wellbeing.

The RACGP, Consumer Health Forum of Australia (CHF) and Mental Health Australia are urging the Federal Government to implement a national social prescribing scheme in response to what they are calling Australia’s ‘mental health and wellbeing crisis’.
 
Since 2017, GPs across Australia have rated mental health as the most common presentation they see as part of the college’s annual Health of the Nation survey – a trend that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
Medicare data also show an increase in patients accessing mental health services during the pandemic, with services highest at the peak of Victoria’s second wave in July 2020.
 
As a result, RACGP President Dr Karen Price said there is a clear need for a national social prescribing scheme to employ innovative local solutions to tackle the issue, which would ideally be implemented and funded in the 2021 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO).
 
‘As we tackle the ongoing pandemic and transition to COVID normal, we must address the considerable social, mental and physical health impacts on our community,’ Dr said.
 
‘GPs are seeing more and more patients presenting with mental health and wellbeing concerns. They’re lonely, isolated, and not active.
 
‘It’s very concerning because we know these problems are key risk factors for poor health – people who are experiencing loneliness, for example, are more at risk of their physical health declining.’

A 2019 survey conducted by the RACGP and CHF found more than 90% of GPs and allied health professionals believe that referring patients to non-medical services in the community is extremely helpful for improving health outcomes.
 
Meanwhile, 68% of consumers are reportedly interested in participating in community programs to address health and wellbeing issues.
 
CHF CEO Leanne Wells describes social prescribing as a vital development for patients and said it was recommended by CHF’s 2020 Consumer Commission as a solution to healthcare system exposed by the pandemic.
 
‘Social prescribing is a way of delivering truly person-centred, comprehensive care that embraces social and lifestyle risk factor management support as well as conventional medical care,’ she said.
 
‘We need an innovative approach to tackle this problem, because Australia’s health system is already buckling under the enormous pressure of dealing with rising COVID-19 cases, as well as a backlog from patients who delayed care in lockdown.
 
‘A nationally coordinated approach to social wellbeing and support will ease the burden on our hospital system and help to keep patients happy and healthy in our community.’
 
Ms Wells said there is a ‘growing body of evidence and international experience’ that shows even a modest investment in a social prescribing scheme would help harness existing community and social services to better support Australians with their mental and physical health needs, as well as improve their self-care capability.
 
‘That’s the key. We already have great activities and services existing in our communities, we just need to establish a formal structure and links to GPs and other health professionals who can support patients in need to access them,’ she said.
 
‘It might sound like a small thing, but it will make a big difference in improving peoples’ mental and physical health, while also reducing the burden on health services.’
 
Meanwhile, Mental Health Australia CEO Dr Leanne Beagley says a national approach to social prescribing needs to be considered when finalising, and then implementing, the forthcoming National Agreement for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.
 
‘Social prescribing is about how best to deal with mental health, and illness, at a community level,’ said Dr Beagley.
 
‘It is about understanding what a person needs in addressing their health problems, which often goes beyond clinical interventions to the heart of wellbeing – and that is social connection.
 
‘To join with the RACGP and CHF to advocate for a national approach to social prescribing is an important pillar of our national advocacy approach to ensure people with lived experience continue to have an effective voice and improve our mental health system through person led co-design.’
 
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