Dr Michelle Howarth

The recent Covid Pandemic has exacerbated health inequalities, increased the number of people living with long term conditions (LTC) and highlighted the impact that socio economic, cultural, and other wider determinants have on our health and wellbeing. In a post covid era, (or are we?), the number of people living with LTC globally has influenced health care strategists to grapple with alternative solutions that can help both support people with LTC and reduce health inequalities. Social prescribing is heralded as an approach that can support people in the community with complex LTC needs and help reduce inequalities within communities. Health and Care professionals use a social prescription to connect individuals to a ‘link worker’ in the community who work with the individual and identify person-centred solutions. This often involves onward referral to an asset within the voluntary sector, such as walking groups, art societies and other community-based activities. There is growing evidence that social prescribing has a positive impact on people living with LTC through reducing social isolation, enhancing lifestyle behaviours, and improving mental wellbeing.

So, against this backdrop, in 2019, I was commissioned to evaluate a social prescribing system within the voluntary sector. As a research team we were able to capture the views, experiences, and perceptions of the process of social prescribing which also included quantitative metrics derived from a digital platform used to refer, monitor, and generate evidence for social prescribing. However, whilst the findings highlighted a positive impact on wellbeing for people with LTC, in our research we also identified a ‘gap’ in the type of data being collected. The ‘gap’ related to data such as post codes, ethnicity, employment status and to see how this could potentially help link workers demonstrate the impact of social prescribing on population health. This ‘gap’ represented a significant challenge to understanding the demographics and metrics of people referred through social prescribing and limited the link worker’s ability to provide the evidence needed for future commissioning of services.  Back to the drawing board? No…. fast forward to 2021.

So, to fill the ‘gap’ we developed a successful Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) application  to enable the generation and ‘exchange’ of knowledge needed to support social prescribing evaluations and future commissioning. We worked with a National social prescribing digital platform provider to enhance the functionality of their system, which facilitated the curation of population health metrics. The journey from research to knowledge exchange is not unique and reflects the ‘Knowledge Exchange Life Cycle’ that can often be missed by busy researchers and clinicians. So, it’s worth looking out for the gap and asking what is the potential impact? Can this be developed? Can this gap be converted into a knowledge exchange opportunity, you never know – the unexpected gap may be just the thing you need to generate future innovation.