The rise of 'social prescribing'

Nature walks. Dance classes. Volunteering. These are among the social activities being prescribed across at least 30 programs in the U.S. Social prescribing — or the practice of connecting people with nonclinical activities that target underlying concerns such as isolation, stress and access to healthy foods — is a well-known concept in Britain and is increasingly stirring interest in the U.S., experts told The New York Times in an April 17 report

There isn't one single definition for social prescriptions, though most aim to improve people's overall wellness and quality of life. At Cleveland Clinic, physicians prescribe nature walks, volunteering and ballroom dancing through programs for geriatric patients. New Jersey's largest health insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, is part of a study evaluating whether an arts prescription program is tied to quality of life improvements, reduced disparities and lower emergency department reliance. 

Early studies on social prescribing in the U.S. have suggested such prescriptions can help reduce hospital admissions and keep patients out of the ED for routine issues, which may incentivize insurers to lean more into such programs in the future. In Britain, where social prescribing was first made popular, the nation's healthcare system aims to make the practice available to 900,000 people this year.

In the U.S., experts anticipate the healthcare industry will be more hesitant to fully embrace social prescribing, which may shift gradually over time with more comprehensive research on outcomes and cost savings. 

"There's reason to be skeptical about how far this will go," Daniel Eisenberg, PhD, professor of public health policy and management at University of California Los Angeles, told the Times. "Our healthcare system tends to make only very incremental changes, and I think all the biases built into the system favor medical care and more acute intensive care." 

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