(As published by the Hamilton Spectator July 22, 2022)

“Social prescribing” recognizes that good health is not only the absence of disease, but acknowledges the impact of social determinants of health, Pat Spadafora writes.

“Social prescribing is the most exciting, transformative and meaningful treatment I have ever had to offer my patients.”

These words were spoken by Dr. Marie Anne Essam who is based in Watford, England, and is the clinical lead and ambassador for social prescribing.

While there are existing and emerging social prescribing models and programs around the world, many have drawn their early inspiration from the experiences of the United Kingdom.

What is social prescribing? At its core, social prescribing provides a holistic lens for addressing the needs of individuals, integrating community programs and services with health care services to provide a more seamless continuum of care and support that is person-centered. This lens includes a structured pathway for primary health-care providers and allied health professionals to connect their patients/clients with programs and services that can respond to their non-clinical needs.

Social prescribing recognizes that good health is not only the absence of disease, but acknowledges the impact of social determinants of health. Within the broader context of health, social determinants of health represent the economic and social factors that impact one’s health and well-being. A few examples include housing, income, social exclusion/inclusion, education, race, gender, education and food insecurity.

Social prescribing has the potential to improve health outcomes for individuals who participate in the programs and services to which they are referred, to reduce strain on the health-care providers making the referrals and to alleviate pressures on the health-care system itself. While more research is needed, a report published by the University of Westminster (June 2017) in the United Kingdom suggested that, when an individual is supported through social prescribing, their physician visits are reduced by an average of 28 per cent and visits to emergency departments by 24 per cent.

While individuals benefitting from social prescriptions in Canada are not limited to specific age cohorts, a great number of programs do focus on older adults.

Why is this focus on older adults important? While people representing all age groups were and, continue to be, impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with many people experiencing social isolation and loneliness, older adults have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Social restrictions and guidelines, while providing protection, all too often resulted in increased social isolation.

One Ontario example of a social prescribing initiative created to benefit older adults is Links2Wellbeing, a three-year project representing a partnership between the Older Adult Centres’ Association of Ontario (OACAO) and the Alliance for Healthier Communities. The overarching goal of the project is to transform the ways in which primary health care providers (e.g. doctors, nurse practitioners, community paramedics) link older adults to social and recreational opportunities that support their health and well-being. The project includes a referral pathway for primary health-care providers to link older adults to recreation and social programs offer by the OACAO Seniors’ Active Living Centres (SALCs). There are participating SALCs from across Ontario and opportunities for additional SALCs and health-care providers to become involved.

A Canada-wide example of social prescribing is called PaRx, an initiative of the BC Parks Foundation. More than 4,000 physicians across Canada are writing prescriptions that recognize the health benefits of nature. The evidence is compelling. Adults who spend time in nature recover better from stress and report being more satisfied with life. Spending time in nature is one of the best things any of us can do for our health. In addition to starting a park prescription program for his patients, one family doctor in Ontario also makes use of a local fruit and vegetable prescription program.

These two examples provide only a brief glimpse into social prescribing in Canada. As with many initiatives, we are limited only by our imaginations. For more information and links to resources and research about social prescribing in Canada, please contact Pat Spadafora at [email protected].

Pat Spadafora is the president of Kaleidoscope Consulting and a volunteer with the Hamilton Council on Aging. For more information about the Hamilton Council on Aging or to make a donation please visit www.coahamilton.ca.


Click here for the Hamilton Spectator article.