GPs could prescribe bingo and dancing after English trial's success

One practice prescribing activities saw 20% cut in hospital outpatient admissions

Boxing, bingo and Bollywood dancing are being prescribed on the NHS in a pilot project that GPs claim is reducing their workload by cutting the number of non-medical issues they deal with.

“Community prescribing” sees patients sent to exercise classes and sessions on debt and housing advice in church halls and pubs for issues that GPs are not qualified to address.

Thirty-seven GP practices in the London borough of Croydon are now operating the scheme, which is part-funded with almost £800,000 in NHS money but also relies on community volunteering. Eighteen months into the pilot, it appears to be lifting a load from doctors who have said that until recently every third appointment they handled involved an issue they were not qualified to help with, including accessing welfare or tackling loneliness and housing problems.

In the year to July 2018, there was a 20% reduction in hospital outpatient referrals and a 4% drop in emergency hospital admissions from the Parchmore medical centre, in Thornton Heath, which pioneered the scheme and has spent £50,000 on prescribing 30,000 social sessions.

Simon Stevens, the NHS England’s chief executive, has visited the project and its progress is informing a wider roll-out of social prescribing in the health service. An NHS team is assessing the cost and impact.

Dr Agnelo Fernandes, who leads Parchmore, said it had resulted in a marked reduction in the number of people using doctors’ appointments for non-medical issues. It’s also hoped that by easing the workload, GP jobs in deprived areas will become more desirable.

“We were at the stage when our doctors were leaving after the cleaners [at 9pm],” said Dr Fernandes. The practice has three GP vacancies and when it advertised last year for one position, there were zero applicants because the workload was so high.

“People who were previously isolated are getting out of their houses,” Dr Fernandes said. “It has provided an opportunity to meet people and do other things. Some of the people I used to see, I only see now in the films they make [about the activities they are involved in].”

The list of activities which can be prescribed in Croydon now runs to 112. One of the newest is being set up by the landlady of the Prince George pub in Thornton Heath, Sheila Gaughan. She is offering a free coffee morning to combat loneliness and a drop-in for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their carers.

“It’s dead time in the pub and we can put it to better use,” she said.

Other sessions include gardening, mindfulness and a choir, with practices texting suggestions to people with different vulnerabilities about sessions they could join. An app for patients is being developed with the help of Apple, said Brian Dickens, the practice manager at Parchmore who has driven the plan.

“It is rediscovering social value,” said Steve Reed, the Labour MP for Croydon North. “Communities want to reach out and support each other.”

During a packed over-50s fitness class in St Paul’s church, people who had been prescribed the session included Patrick Fallon, 65, who was keeping fit after treatment for cancer, Jenny Hall, 72, who was missing her husband after he died and Mary Tagoe, 69, who had suffered lower back pain.

“It has helped,” Mary said. “It has made me more mobile and has improved my general health. Another aspect is I am meeting other people.”


Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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