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Matt Hancock: ‘Arts on prescription should be at centre of UK healthcare system’

Health secretary Matt Hancock. Photo: UK government
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Health secretary Matt Hancock has declared that prescribing arts and culture should become an “indispensable tool” in tackling loneliness, mental health and other long-term conditions.

He also used a speech on the subject to announce the creation of a national academy for social prescribing, where GPs and other primary care professionals will be able to receive training and support in alternative methods of care.

The UK has been “fostering a culture that’s been popping pills and Prozac”, Hancock said, adding that this could be combatted by enabling doctors to prescribe arts and cultural activities.

He said that accessing the arts was “scientifically proven” to improve mental and physical health, making people “happier and healthier”.

“We should value the arts because they’re essential to our health and well-being. And that’s not me as a former culture secretary saying it,” Hancock said, adding that he wanted to champion “how the arts can help us move to more person-centred care and a focus on prevention as much as cure, and how social prescribing can shape our health and social care system in the future”.

In a speech at the second national conference on social prescription, held by the King’s Fund in London on November 6, Hancock cited examples of dance lessons being used to combat early signs of psychosis, connecting school choirs with care homes, and music lessons used to improve patients’ recovery after a stroke.

He said he would work with Arts Council England and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to develop social prescribing models.

The national academy for social prescribing announced by Hancock will be an organisation to build a research base, empower GPs to learn what is available in their communities, as well as benefits including physical exercise, nutritional advice and community classes.

It follows earlier promises that government spending would be allocated to developing pilot schemes and new resources.

In a recent YouGov poll on social prescribing, more than half of respondents supported using NHS spending to give GPs the power to offer the arts on prescription.

Areas that are already exploring its use include the North West, where a social prescribing scheme for new mothers and babies is being rolled out, and Wales, where the Arts Council of Wales has joined up with the country’s NHS confederation to promote the benefits of culture to health and well-being.

What is social prescribing?

  • Social prescribing enables GPs and other primary care professionals to refer patients to a range of non-clinical services as an alternative to more traditional methods of care.
  • Evidence suggests that social prescribing can lead to health and well-being improvements, particularly in cases of ageing, loneliness, mental health and other long-term conditions.
  • Offering the arts on prescription is central to this, and activities can include dance classes, singing lessons and art groups, as well as community activities such as choirs. Other measures including gardening, other forms of physical exercise and nutritional advice.
  • Social prescribing has also been championed as a way of reducing strain on the NHS by saving money and decreasing demand for primary healthcare services.
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