Doctor's orders: 'Social prescriptions' have been shown to improve health

A pilot program that began in the summer has now expanded to include trips to the Royal Ontario Museum. The idea behind "social prescriptions" is that non-medical interventions can have a big impact on health and reduce the burden on the health care system.

Pilot program allows doctors, social workers to prescribe activities that promote social connections

A pilot program will allow doctors and social workers to prescribe outings to such places as the museum. Research shows social activities can make people feel less trapped in time. (Supplied)

Doctors may be used to prescribing traditional medicine and treatments, but in a new pilot program they now have the option to prescribe "social prescriptions" — activities that promote social connections and strengthen community bonds.

And the program, run by the Alliance for Healthier Communities, got a big boost this week when the Royal Ontario Museum announced it would offer free admission to those who get a referral from a healthcare provider, community professional or social worker.

The idea was test run over the summer by the Rexdale Community Health Centre with about 500 participants.

"It was an opportunity for them to connect with new people and have new experiences," said Safia Ahmed, executive director of the centre.

Safia Ahmed, executive director of the Rexdale Community Health Centre, ran a 'social prescriptions' pilot project that involved 500 clients. (Supplied)

One woman, a refugee suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, had been taking a number of medications but experienced a dramatic improvement through the program.

"She is now off all her medications and made connections, made friends and is now volunteering," said Ahmed.

Along with the Rexdale Community Health Centre, 20 centres will be involved with the ROM program when it begins its wide rollout next month. The initiative aims to help 5,000 people and their families over the next year.

Josh Basseches, CEO and director of the Royal Ontario Museum, says a visit to a museum can actually be a therapeutic activity. (Supplied)

"We are surrounded with so much going on and stress in people's lives," ROM CEO and director Josh Basseches said. "I've always been a believer that museums can transform people's lives." 

Basseches says up to four people will be allowed in free if one of them has a referral from a healthcare or social service provider. He expects the referrals to add up to 20,000 free visits.

And there's research that these kind of non-medical interventions can mean big improvements in health, says Dr. Kate Mulligan of the Alliance for Healthier Communities.

She adds that fostering meaningful connections can improve a person's well being and reduce visits to the doctor for problems that may not be medical.

Dr. Kate Mulligan of the Alliance for Healthier Communities says social prescriptions can be as simple as knitting classes or yoga. (Supplied)

And that can have a real impact on health costs. Mulligan says using social prescriptions in the United Kingdom has helped free up medical clinicians by allowing them to refer patients to community support workers. That in turn helped reduce wait times and cut down on emergency room visits, which all added up to significant health-care savings. 

Mulligan says making admission free removes a barrier to engagement and says since the ROM came on board, more institutions across the city have expressed interest in honouring social prescriptions.

"It's really great when major organizations also see the benefits and also want to partner with us to evaluate and see whether this is really having an impact for people," said Mulligan.

Ontario's Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care helped fund the one-year Alliance for Healthier Communities pilot project, as well as the ROM Community Access Network, which has been doing outreach with elder, Indigenous and youth groups for a decade.


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC National News

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with three decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.