Where isolated souls might once have sought comfort chatting with locals in the village pub, or speaking with their vicar on a Sunday morning, they’re now much more likely to offload worries on their GP instead.
Speaking to the Telegraph, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, who’s charged with leading the government’s drive on social prescribing – a health movement first pioneered by the College of Medicine – said that weaker communities and social media pressures meant individuals had less people to turn to.
Latest figures suggest that around one million people a week in the UK now visit their doctors to talk through issues such as loneliness, anxiety or depression.
The former head of Britain’s GPs, Prof Stokes-Lampard said: “You can have 1,000 Facebook friends and be desperately lonely.
“Whilst our social media world has mushroomed, the people with whom we have meaningful relationships has shrunk. We used to have stronger communities.”
Prof Stokes-Lampard is newly appointed to the lead role at the National Academy for Social Prescribing, which hopes to improve well-being for a million patients by 2024.
She said: “I would argue that a form of social prescribing has always existed. It’s what GPs, priests, hairdressers, bartenders, postmen and women have always done – which is recognising someone is missing something in their life.”
Explaining how social prescribing can help benefit people, Prof Stokes-Lampard said: ‘What we are doing with social prescribing is giving greater emphasis to the social parts of people’s lives and the impact they can have on health and wellbeing – and that’s why the NHS is interested in it.
“Think about what priests did, when religion played a bigger part in people’s lives … bartenders, a traditional pub where you knew your landlord and built a good relationship.”
The social prescribing lead said towns such as Frome in Somerset prove that the approach works. Hospital admissions in the West Country town have fallen by 14 per cent since some 1,400 people were trained to look out for patients who could benefit from social prescribing four years ago.
College of Medicine Chair, Dr Michael Dixon, told the newspaper that there’s been a significant positive impact on communities who got on board with social prescribing early.
Dr Dixon said that UK regions that had been early uptakers of the concept had seen GP and A&E visits drop by a fifth – saving the NHS millions.
Dr Dixon said: “There are clear economic benefits of social prescribing, as you see a consistent 20 per cent reduction in GP and hospital visits.”
He added: “Most GPs do not have the time to speak to people about their social problems, and many patients are vastly over-medicalised. Social prescribing involves sweating local assets and creating reconnections in the community, so people can live better lives.”