A busy few years: Developing a programme of research on social prescribing
Stephanie Tierney, Kamal R. Mahtani
8 March 2023
In recognition of Social Prescribing Day (on 9th March 2023), Stephanie Tierney and Kamal Mahtani have taken time to reflect, within this blog, on the burgeoning portfolio of projects they have developed that relate to this approach to managing non-medical factors affecting people’s health and well-being.
Where it all started
Back in 2018, we embarked on a review focused on the role of care navigators in primary care. This was our entry point into a journey conducting research on social prescribing. As part of the review, we undertook a survey of Clinical Commissioning Groups to identify how roles that we now commonly refer to as link workers in primary care were being rolled out across England. It highlighted the variation in how social prescribing was being implemented. An interest in this diversity (and trying to understand it) prompted us to secure funding for further research on the link worker role.
Researching the link worker role
In 2021 we started a study, funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research, on the implementation of link workers in primary care. It is due to be completed early in 2024. It has two work packages. The first has involved spending time with link workers in different parts of England to learn how they carry out their job and the various ways in which their role has been developed and delivered across Primary Care Networks. As part of this work package, we interviewed people working with a link worker (healthcare professionals, voluntary-community sector staff). We also spoke to patients supported by them. Work package 2 involves re-interviewing these patients 9-12 months later. We are in the process of doing these follow-up interviews. The data we have collected are rich and informative. We are starting to write papers on what we have found.
Later this year we will embark on a new study, funded by the School for Primary Care Research, which will explore the recruitment and retention of link workers in primary care. It will be an explanatory sequential mixed methods study, with data collection using a questionnaire followed by interviews with link workers.
We are also supporting a member of our team, Amadea Turk, with her DPhil study. For her thesis, she is looking at the link worker role in areas of deprivation and the networks that are available and built in such settings.
Researching the cultural sector
Another strand of our research explores the role of the cultural sector in social prescribing. We collaborate with colleagues from the Gardens, Libraries and Museums (GLAM) team in Oxford on this. Together, we carried out a study funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council that focused on social prescribing, the cultural sector and older people. We wrote a report based on this study that included recommendations for those involved in the cultural sector or social prescribing. This research led to a successful knowledge exchange event that we carried out in June 2022. It involved bringing together cultural providers and link workers for the day. Link workers were able to try cultural activities as part of the event because our research showed that this was important to encourage them to refer patients to museums, libraries or green spaces.
An additional project we are working on with colleagues from GLAM is exploring the setting up of social prescribing activities/offers within an arboretum in Oxford. It involves interviewing key people responsible for its development and delivery, to identify learning points for others planning to do something similar.
Another cultural-related branch of research we have undertaken is on the role of volunteering (especially in gardens, libraries and museums) as part of social prescribing. We received funding from the School for Primary Care Research to carry out a qualitative systematic review and interviews. We based this work on the Five Ways to Well-Being and highlighted things to consider if using volunteering as part of social prescribing. As a result of this research, one of us (ST) started working with colleagues from York on a project focused on supported volunteering; this is relevant for people engaged with social prescribing who may require support when volunteering if facing particularly complex challenges in their life. The study will produce a manual/guidance for organisations about supported volunteering.
Other research areas
We have a number of other research areas that we are exploring with colleagues, including:
- Social prescribing for people with mild cognitive impairment
- Non NHS delivered social prescribing pathways
- Virtual reality and its role in social prescribing
- Involvement of community interest companies in social prescribing
- Maternal health and social prescribing
The Oxford Social Prescribing Research Network
Three years ago, we set up, with colleagues from GLAM, the Oxford Social Prescribing Research Network (OxSoP). This network goes from strength to strength and now has over 100 people on its mailing list (link workers, researchers, local authority representatives, healthcare professionals, voluntary-community sector providers). We meet 5-6 times a year online. It is open to anyone with an interest in social prescribing research (you don’t have to be based in Oxford). You can request to join OxSoP via this email address.
We have a number of national collaborators who we work with on our research. We are also developing a strong network of people in other countries who are interested in our work and social prescribing in the UK. This has included making connections with researchers and practitioners in America, Australia, Germany and Greece. We were part of a collaborative paper providing an international perspective on social prescribing published in BMJ Global Health. We look forward to forging further international links, as other countries explore the potential of social prescribing in supporting people’s broader health and well-being.
We would like to thank our social prescribing team members at Oxford for their constant commitment to the research we are producing. We also thank the many groups and organisations we have and continue to collaborate with, who make our research possible, engaging and enjoyable. Furthermore, we thank the many members of the public and professionals who have supported the research we run, as participants, as patient-public involvement contributors, as advisory group members or steering committee representatives.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and not necessarily those of any funders or organisations mentioned, or their host institution.
What to read next
‘Cultural’ offerings as a pathway to supporting older people’s well-being – but what do we mean by ‘cultural’?
15 February 2021
A study designed to explore the cultural sector’s potential role in supporting the well-being of older people during the COVID-19 pandemic through social prescribing.
Volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic: What are the potential benefits to people’s well-being?
23 April 2020
There is weak evidence linking volunteering to positive well-being. In order to benefit, people may need to feel that what they do is likely to make a difference and that it is valued. This idea of ‘mattering’ highlights the fact that although not an explicit reason for volunteering, reciprocity may be important for someone to continue undertaking such work and to gain psychologically from it.
Understanding the implementation of link workers in primary care: A realist evaluation to inform current and future policy
8 November 2021
A new study, led by CEBM members, Dr Stephanie Tierney and Associate Professor Kamal Mahtani, aims to understand the link worker role in primary care as part of social prescribing (in particular, to identify what works, for whom, why and in what circumstances). In this blog, the team shares details about this research, which has been funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).