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Social prescribing represents a paradigm shift in healthcare, emphasizing holistic well-being and focusing on consequences stemming from the social determinants of health. It has seen the employment of link workers in England to support patients with their non-medical needs (e.g. loneliness, housing problems, worries about finances). However, understanding and utilization of social prescribing among professionals and patients remain variable, potentially hindering its efficacy. This blog describes an ongoing qualitative analysis of data collected for a larger study on the link worker role in primary care in England. This qualitative analysis will delve into interpretations/understanding of social prescribing from the perspectives of patients, primary care staff and members of the voluntary-community sector. It will aim to shed light on people’s views on the role, remit, and value of social prescribing within the context of English primary care. It is being undertaken by Iva Fattorini for her dissertation as part of a MSc in Global Healthcare Leadership at the University of Oxford.

Social prescribing

Social prescribing is becoming a global approach to supporting patients, alongside more traditional medical care. The UK has been at the forefront of its development and delivery, with the link worker role rolled out nationally in the NHS in England in 2019. However, more research is required into understanding of social prescribing among healthcare professionals, including general practitioners, administrators, and nurses, to avoid suboptimal referrals and limited patient engagement. This knowledge gap poses challenges in promoting the value of social prescribing and may impede its overall uptake and success. It may mean that people are referred to social prescribing with unrealistic expectations, and that professionals refer individuals who are inappropriate for link workers to support (i.e. because they need more extensive assistance/treatment). 


For a larger study on the link worker role in primary care in England, semi-structured interviews were conducted with a purposive sample of healthcare staff and patients and members of the voluntary-community sector. During interviews, participants were asked specifically what the term social prescribing meant to them. These data were extracted into a NVivo file by the research team ready for analysis. Reflexive thematic analysis is being used to discern nuances in understanding social prescribing’s alignment with existing policy frameworks. By examining the data through a qualitative lens, this study seeks to unravel the complexities surrounding understanding of social prescribing and its implications for policy, practice, and future research endeavours. 

Research Objectives

Analysis of data on the meaning of the term social prescribing for interviewees, will seek to explore: 

  • Interpretations of social prescribing among patients, primary care staff and members of the voluntary-community sector and their understanding of its role, remit, and value within English primary care.
  • Potential impact of varying interpretations on the implementation and efficacy of social prescribing initiatives, including factors influencing stakeholder engagement and uptake of social prescribing services.  

Implications and Future Directions

Findings from this study hold the potential to inform policy formulation, shape clinical practice, and guide future research agendas. This may include how information about social prescribing is ‘messaged’ to patients, to ensure they have a realistic and clear understanding of the support it can provide, and training needs of primary care staff on this topic. By elucidating the perspectives of stakeholders, this research aims to foster more nuanced understanding of social prescribing for different stakeholders. The anticipated publication of results (in late 2024-early 2025) promises to contribute to ongoing discourse and initiatives aimed at optimizing the role of social prescribing in primary care. A protocol for this secondary analysis of data collected for the larger evaluation can be found here. 


This qualitative analysis will illuminate the intricacies of social prescribing, unravelling the meaning of its role, remit, and value within the multifaceted landscape of English primary care. By amplifying the voices of patients, healthcare professionals and voluntary-community sector providers, it will pave the way for a more inclusive, practical and effective approach to healthcare delivery that embraces social prescribing to foster holistic healing and well-being.


The link worker study mentioned in this blog was funded by a grant from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR130247). The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the NIHR, the Department of Health and Social Care, or the author’s host institution.