Why doctors are prescribing bingo, not pills, to keep patients healthy

A new initiative in Ontario will soon tackle some health problems by prescribing social activities instead of medication to people suffering from loneliness.

Solving the problem of social isolation can prevent health problems down the road

Studies have shown loneliness and social isolation are growing problems among Canada's seniors, and can lead to serious health problems down the road. (Shutterstock)

A new initiative in Ontario will soon tackle some health problems by prescribing social activities instead of medication to people suffering from loneliness.

The idea is inspired by a U.K.-based program which prescribes activities such as bingo, gardening and even visiting a coffee shop to patients. 

"You are defined by far more than your medical diagnosis," said Dr. Marie Anne Essam, a British doctor who leads the U.K. project, in an interview with CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"Social isolation [is] one of those things that can cripple well-being. [It] can lead to depression and can actually lead to physical health problems too."

The program is now being introduced to Ontario through a one-year pilot.

Funded by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, the program will be piloted in 11 Ontario community health centres, including Ottawa's Centretown Community Health Centre.

Social isolation a growing problem

Studies suggest that loneliness and social isolation are growing problems in society, especially among Canadian seniors. 

According to Statistics Canada, 16 per cent of seniors feel isolated from others, while 17 per cent feel excluded either often or some of the time. The health risks associated with that isolation can be dire. 

Loneliness is associated with higher levels of cortisol — the body's stress hormone — as well as an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. In older adults especially, it's associated with poorer cognitive function and an increased risk of falls, according to a Statistics Canada report. 

But a program like this could head off those health issues before they become real problems, said Natasha Beaudin, a health promoter with the Centretown Community Health Centre.

"A lot of what you can do maybe 10 years before ... can actually prevent people from ending up in [the hospital]," she said.

"Whether that's something like quitting smoking, or joining a walking group, or joining a knitting group or coming to a dance therapy group and starting to connect with other people, there are long-term, positive effects from that." 

Visits to doctors, hospitals dropped

In the U.K., the program has seen real success, Essam said, including a 25 per cent decrease in visits to doctors and emergency rooms. 

In general, people are healthier when they're connected to and invested in their communities. The program encourages doctors to ask new questions about their patients' health, she said. 

"What we're looking at is the quality and enrichment of people's lives," she said. "Are you happy? Are you fulfilled?" 

CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning