Social prescribing pilot costing £12.7m aims to cut medication use through walking and cycling

The funding will go towards schemes such as cycling and walking groups, cycle training and free bike loans.
older people cycling

Eleven local authorities in England are set to trial the social prescribing of cycling and walking, in a £12.7m initiative.

Announcing the scheme on 22 August 2022, the government said the funding will go towards setting up cycling and walking groups, cycle training and free bike loans, among other schemes. It added that “the pilots must be delivered alongside improved infrastructure so people feel safe to cycle and walk”.

The aim of the pilot is to “evaluate the impact of cycling and walking on an individual’s health, such as reduced GP appointments and reliance on medication due to more physical activity”, the government said.

Bodies including NHS England, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, Sport England, the National Academy for Social Prescribing, Defra and the Department for Health and Social Care, will work together on the trial, with the government describing it as a “whole systems approach to health improvement and tackling health disparities”.

Commenting on the pilot, Trudy Harrison, transport minister said: “Walking and cycling has so many benefits — from improving air quality in our communities to reducing congestion on our busiest streets.

“It also has an enormous positive impact on physical and mental health, which is why we have funded these projects which will get people across the country moving and ease the burden on our NHS.”

Thorrun Govind, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s English Pharmacy Board, said that the Society welcomed the trials, noting that pharmacists “play a significant role in prevention and supporting non-medical interventions to support people’s care, as well as providing advice on medicines”.

“Pharmacists working in all areas of practice should be encouraged to refer to social prescribing link workers for the good of patients and the public, and processes need to be put in place to support this. Using pharmacists in social prescribing can benefit the health and wellbeing of the population as a whole.

“Community pharmacies are socially inclusive healthcare environments and social prescribing provides another way to address health inequalities and provide support to vulnerable individuals and communities facing particular challenges. Practice pharmacists can also identify people who would benefit from a social prescribing referral as part of a structured medication review.”

The NHS long-term plan, published in January 2019, pledged that 1,000 social prescribing link workers would be recruited by primary care networks by 2020/2021.

Figures from NHS Digital show that, as of June 2022, there were 1,903 full-time equivalent social prescribing link workers in primary care networks and 215 based in general practice.

Health inequalities

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s policy on health inequalities was drawn up in January 2023 following a presentation by Michael Marmot, director of the Institute for Health Equity, at the RPS annual conference in November 2022. The presentation highlighted the stark health inequalities across Britain.

While community pharmacies are most frequently located in areas of high deprivation, people living in these areas do not access the full range of services that are available. To mitigate this, the policy calls on pharmacies to not only think about the services it provides but also how it provides them by considering three actions:

  • Deepening understanding of health inequalities
    • This means developing an insight into the demographics of the population served by pharmacies using population health statistics and by engaging with patients directly through local community or faith groups.
  • Understanding and improving pharmacy culture
    • This calls on the whole pharmacy team to create a welcoming culture for all patients, empowering them to take an active role in their own care, and improving communication skills within the team and with patients.
  • Improving structural barriers
    • This calls for improving accessibility of patient information resources and incorporating health inequalities into pharmacy training and education to tackle wider barriers to care.
Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, August 2022, Vol 309, No 7964;309(7964)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2022.1.154528

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