Is it time for more than medicine?

Back when the Black Death ran rampant, killing almost a third of Europe’s population, one of the bogus treatments that doctors prescribed was to apply a poultice of butter, onion and garlic to the boil. These days we would use those ingredients to baste a chook!

Medical practices from ages past that seem bizarre to us now, such as blood letting to drain illness, heroin syrup for coughs, lobotomies to remove ‘extra emotions’ and tobacco smoke enemas to ward off death (ironic!), have ceased to be common practice and have over time been replaced with what we now know as modern medicine and evidence-based prescribing. There have been huge benefits, from penicillin to pain killers, lives have improved and mortality rates declined. Yet some have began to ask, have we gone so far that common emotions and traits have become medically treatable conditions. With longer life expectancies and the world’s booming population growth, is continuing to medicalise society sustainable?

Modern medicine is often paired with good advice: Don’t forget to exercise. Eat your greens. Cut down on sugar. Sometimes this add on bit of advice is seen as the optimal or the optional! What if two scripts for one consultation could be given: one for modern medicine to deal with the clinical cause, and another for the social element where patients are linked with non-medical sources of support within the community.

In the UK, all sorts of charities and organisations are being funded to trial ‘Social Prescribing’ with arts and crafts for the elderly. According to the charity Friends of the Elderly more than a million older people live isolated and lonely lives, and one in five older people see other people less than once a week. Many of these initiatives are trying to address the negative health effects of isolation and loneliness by providing new opportunities and a place of social support.

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Some initiatives collaborate with GPs, like the Creative Outreach Program at London’s Dulwich gallery, where GPs connect lonely elderly pensioners with local arts workshops, providing them with social support and stimulation.

Others are drop in centres, like Glasgow’s Craft Cafe where anyone over the age of 50 can drop in for coffee and craft. Card making, drawing, jewellery making, knitting, painting, sewing and sculpting are all available for willing participants.

London’s Age Exchange offers all sorts of activities for the elderly and their carers. Pop in Tuesdays for belly dancing, mid week is filled with art and craft classes, leaving Fridays free for unwinding with a spot of Tai Chi.

Others are organisations that focus on visiting varying age care facilities, like Cafe Charity that recruits volunteers to provide creative activities like art and craft, reading poetry and playing music to the residents.

Social Prescribing is about supporting the health and well bring of people by using community-based activities and support like art, exercise, gardening, music, reading and even collaborative group activities like fishing! The positive outcomes are many and varied, from enhanced self esteem, improved mood, increased mobility and dexterity, more social contact and learning new skills.

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Although the idea of social prescribing is simple, the reality is complex. How do busy GPs know what locally accessible opportunities are available? If you can’t write it on a PBS prescription, how is it done? Is it yet more responsibility offloaded onto already busy GPs? Just as we look back to the early quackery of snail slime for coughs, will we one day look back on our current mainstream medicalisation of society’s ill’s and wonder why it took so long to consider additional or co-existing options that are organised and funded? Have you heard of any social prescribing initiatives here in Australia?


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