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Episode 17

Healthy, Resilient & Engaged Communities. Social Prescribing, with Dr. Kate Mulligan

Guest: Dr. Kate Mulligan

Director of Policy and Communication at the Alliance for Healthier Communities. Assistant Professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto. 

Key Takeaways

  • Social prescribing is a tool that healthcare professionals can use to help reconnect patients with their community.​​

    • As an ultimate goal, it tries to directly address the all-important “social determinants of health,” such as social support, education and geographic region.

    • It can take many forms, from providing a same-day visit to a grief counseling session, to prescribing a much-needed fishing trip with friends.

  • Dr. Kate Mulligan’s pilot project of social prescribing in 11 centers across Canada has been met with massive success. It is a fantastic way to support patients not only mentally, but physically. And when that happens, they do better.

    • The majority of our health comes from factors beyond the physiological, such as wealth, living conditions and social circles. Social prescribing lets us tap into those factors, and work to improve them.

  • Dr. Mulligan’s great success has sent waves across the world, and social prescribing has now been taken up by many countries including England and Australia.

A Closer Look

What is Social Prescribing?

  • “It’s a tool,” says Dr. Kate Mulligan, a community health and wellbeing researcher and assistant Professor at the University of Toronto.

    • Its main purpose is to give healthcare providers a way to help patients reconnect with their community.

    • 80-90% of our health is determined by non-physiological factors such as social status, wealth and social circle, says Dr. Mulligan.

      • Social prescribing helps physicians directly address these so-called “social determinants of health,” and, in doing so, help patients beyond what medications can achieve.

  • Social prescribing is also a very flexible term.

    • It can be anything as serious as providing a man who recently lost his wife same-day grief counselling sessions, or something as simple as prescribing and helping organize a much-needed vacation with friends.

  • Regardless of the type of social prescribing, there are three fundamental pillars that make it so powerful:

  1. The referral is always supported. If a physician prescribes a grief counselling session, she will make sure those resources are available and accessible by the patient.

  2. The prescription is co-designed. “The person receiving the referral has as much power as the giver,” says Dr. Mulligan, which is a key part that makes social prescribing so great. The patient tells the physician what they need to feel better, and they work together to make that happen.

  3. The prescription is tracked. This is important for several reasons:

    1. It allows physicians to book follow-up appointments and trial different prescriptions just like trialing a medication.

    2. It also helps researchers like Dr. Mulligan track the efficiency of social prescribing and collect data to prove its effectiveness and, eventually, scale it up.


A growing movement

  • Dr. Mulligan began working on social prescribing about two years ago.

    • At that time, she was inspired by community health centers, which already use community-developed initiatives aimed at improving the health of the population.

  • Soon, the movement grew into a pilot project with 11 different centers across Canada, including indigenous healthcare centers, nurse practitioner-lead clinics and community-governed family health teams.

    • The results were unanimous; 97.6% of physicians in these centers thought that social prescribing was a part of their role. 89.6% thought that it was improving their patients’ health and wellbeing.

  • As Dr. Mulligan expands her initiative, more and more support is needed to make things happen. “We need everyone,” she says. Researchers, students, families, patients, healthcare providers all have their own role in helping make social prescribing a medical movement.


International renown

  • Recently, Dr. Mulligan received the first-ever global award for social prescribing because of her strong support of health equity.

    • As social prescribing gains traction, other countries such as Australia are looking towards Dr. Mulligan’s models to reproduce it in their own communities.

  • On March 25th, 2020, James Sanderson, the Director of Personalized Care for NHS England and the incoming CEO for the National Academy of Social Prescribing, will be meeting with Dr. Mulligan to help them launch their upcoming report on social prescribing. All are welcome to attend.

Further Readings

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