A prescription you can’t take to the chemist

  9 February 2021  Adj/Assoc Prof Christopher Carter, CEO, NWMPHN   

So, how’s that New Year’s resolution going?

Was it to ‘lose weight’? ‘Get fit’? ‘Drink less’? Yes, it’s February already, and reality is starting to bite. Lifestyle changes are easier said than done.

But they’re also vital to managing a range of health conditions, from diabetes to depression. Eat better. Exercise more. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. Staying connected, with family, friends and your community, is another one that doctors now know helps your mental and physical health.

The big problem for GPs is: How do you support patients to connect?

How do you ‘treat’ loneliness? (A condition researchers say could be as damaging to our overall health as smoking and obesity.)

How do you make sure a woman who cares full-time for her disabled husband makes time to leave the house to get some exercise or just a break?

How do you make sure an elderly man with diabetes takes basic medication he can’t afford?

These are real problems GPs in Melbourne’s west and north have tackled using a new approach that could dramatically improve our health care.

It works like this. A patient sees their GP as normal (diagnosis, testing and monitoring by a doctor remain vital).

Then, as well as any other treatment, the GP can also refer the patient to a ‘social prescribing’ program, funded by North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network and run by IPC Health, a large community health organisation in Melbourne’s west.

The social prescribing program funds a ‘wellbeing co-ordinator’ who spends time with the patient to understand in greater detail their situation — including any financial, social or language factors that can so often get in the way of good health.

The co-ordinator then works with the patient to find solutions. They can even be there beside the patient when they take their ‘first steps’ – for example, into the church hall where the local Italian knitting group is meeting.

In the case of the diabetic man who couldn’t afford his medication, the wellbeing co-ordinator ultimately contacted the man’s local MP, who helped process his application for the Disability Support Pension.

Now able to afford his medication, the man’s blood-sugar levels are better managed, and he is visibly happier.

Life has also improved for the woman who cared for her husband full-time.

The program connected her husband with a supported community group, allowing his wife a ‘day off’, which meant she was able to reconnect with her swimming group.

Doctors and other health professionals have long known that what ails their patient might not be something that a drug or procedure can fix alone. Social prescribing is a practical way that GPs can support their patients keep their new year resolutions.

Even if you don’t get or need a formal social prescription, good social or community connections improve everyone’s lives – and health.

This article was originally published in the Sunbury, Brimbank, Melton and other editions of the Star Weekly newspaper.