A lack of available data and solid data infrastructure are undermining efforts to make the most of social prescribing in healthcare, according to a new report.
The Open Data Institute (ODI) has highlighted the findings from a research study from Frontier Economics, The role of data in unlocking the potential of social prescribing, on the day of its annual conference.
It has also pointed to the release of a new digital tool enabling NHS bodies and local authorities to examine social and health issues that may see patients presented for a social prescription.
Social prescribing involves recommending non-clinical activities or connections that can help to combat loneliness, mental health and welfare issues. The report says that relevant data can help GPs, link workers, charities and other health and wellbeing practitioners to use it effectively.
But it says there is a lack of data infrastructure such as statistics, maps and real time service use data, and that it is difficult for those who working in the sector to share data.
There are four key problems: services are provided locally and details are spread over a large number of sources; community groups and activity providers may not have an obvious way of sharing information; some service providers may have little incentive to provide good quality data; and the data ecosystem is still developing.
The report calls for more investment in features such as IT systems and data standards, and ODI points out the situation could be improved through improving understanding of data sharing and its benefits and giving charities and community providers incentives to share. This could be enabled by mandating the sharing in some instances and improving the data foundations.
In turn, this would help frontline link workers to ensure that social prescriptions are made efficiently, and that the public sector bodies and charities they work with are not overwhelmed by demand.
ODI adds that in recent years it has worked with some partners, such as Sport England, to overcome the shortcomings through initiatives such as the creation of OpenActive, which collates and opens up data about sporting activities, venues and leisure operators.
Managing director Louise Burke said: “This new report shows that social prescribing can unlock health and societal benefits more efficiently if certain enablers are in place. One such enabler is the need for data infrastructure, by which we mean the standards and stewardship to enable collection and sharing of appropriate information.
“If GP appointments can be reduced in the way that the report indicates then this is a clear case of how efficient collation and sharing of data can have sizeable benefits for the NHS.
“There are significant gaps in the data infrastructure shown here, 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.”
She added: “‘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.”
Publication of the report has been accompanied by the launch of the Social Prescribing Flagship Tool, created by Mime Consulting to show factors that could lead to a demand for relevant services in England local authority areas, in some cases drilling down to ward level.
ODI said the data can be used in the planning of different social prescribing services, and in future could be cross referenced with outcomes.
It covers around 100 health and social issues measures, making it possible to create a scatter plot to make a quick correlation and analysis between every measure.
Image from iStock, Zinkevych