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ODI Summit 2021: ‘Social prescribing’ for mental health lacks data infrastructure

A report published at the Open Data Institute’s annual summit finds social prescribing activities geared towards improving mental and physical health lack sufficient data infrastructure

An Open Data Institute (ODI) report predicts that eight million GP appointments could be scrapped each year in favour of “social prescribing” – non-clinical activities that can improve people’s health.

But for this to happen, the ODI said a “data infrastructure” would need to be put in place.

The report, The role of data in unlocking the potential of social prescribing, was published to coincide with the organisation’s 2021 summit. It was based on research carried out by the ODI in collaboration with Frontier Economics, an economics consultancy, and Mime Consulting, a data consultancy.

Speaking at the event, Louise Burke, managing director of the ODI, said “link workers” were social prescribers, but that when they look for activities for their clients to do they are compelled to Google a solution due to a lack of adequate data infrastructure. Link workers are non-clinical NHS employees, often connected with GP practices, and mental health is a common area for them to work in.

“We are seeing an investment in more link workers with a rise in mental health problems among young people in the pandemic,” said Burke.

Data infrastructure, described by the ODI as “data assets – such as statistics, maps and real-time service-use data – supported by people, processes and technology” is, according to the organisation, “currently a weak link in the social prescription model, which means that resources may not be directed appropriately”.

According to the ODI and its collaborators, better data availability could help GPs, link workers, charities and other health and well-being practitioners improve the provision of non-clinical interventions, from physical activity to assistance with social or welfare problems.

In support of the report, Ben Molyneux, a GP and clinical lead for social prescribing and personalised care in north-east London, said: “If GPs could redirect even 1% of our current caseload to social prescribers, we not only get these people to the right place first time, but we also create more capacity to deal with some of the unmet demand and huge backlog facing the NHS as a result of Covid.

“If a 4% reduction could be possible as this report suggests, that means a real difference to patients in terms of better health and well-being outcomes, and more people overall seeing a benefit.”

The report identified the inability to share data between those working in the social prescribing sector as a limit on its effectiveness and argued for a reduction in the cost of sharing through improved data foundations and/or mandating data sharing in some instances.

“This would help frontline social prescribing link workers to better work in their communities to ensure that social prescriptions are made efficiently and that the public sector or charity organisations they work with are not overwhelmed by demand, leading to waiting lists for services or activities,” it said.

In recent years, the ODI has worked with partners to tackle inadequacies in data infrastructure and data access in the health and physical activity sector. It worked with Sport England to create OpenActive, which has been making data about where and when activities happen openly available since 2016, enabling organisations to build apps and services that help people find things to do.

In a statement, Burke said: “There are significant gaps in the data infrastructure...particularly in the data related to the supply of relevant activities, as well as longitudinal data on the impact of social prescribing. The provision of activities to support social prescribing is fragmented and very localised, the data ecosystem is still nascent and trust is still developing in this area. But there are initiatives in development to help address some of these challenges, such as OpenActive.

“The standards and tools that OpenActive has already developed are critical foundations that can help to address some of the data infrastructure needs for social prescribing. The ODI looks forward to building on this and other initiatives to build key national data infrastructure to do more in this area.”

Released alongside the report was a mapping tool from Mime Consulting that shows the factors that could lead to a demand for social prescribing by English local authority areas.

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