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Measuring Successes of Social Prescribing

The Research and Evaluation committee of the All-Ireland Social Prescribing Network (AISPN) hosted a workshop ‘Measuring Successes of Social Prescribing’ in Trinity College Dublin, June 23rd, 2023. The purpose of the workshop was to bring together all those involved in social Prescribing in the Island of Ireland to discuss and make recommendations for evaluating social prescribing. Over 60 individuals attended the workshop including clients of social prescribing services, link workers, social prescribing coordinators and funders.

The workshop began with a welcome from Dr. David Robinson, co-chair of AISPN.

Dr. Stephanie Tierney, co-lead of the Oxford Social Prescribing Research Network, presented our keynote session, providing an insightful discussion on lessons from a Realist Evaluation of Social Prescribing, carried out in the UK.

The workshop used a World Café approach, which is a guided conversation to share knowledge around tables of small groups similarly found in a café. The discussions were facilitated by Ms. Pat Tobin, Community Action Network. This approach allowed multiple ideas and perspectives to be shared in an inclusive environment.

Three key questions discussed on the day were:

1. What is your vision/purpose for social prescribing?

2. What outcomes do you associate with your vision/purpose for social prescribing?

2a. What would success look like for your vision/purpose?

2b. What approaches would you and/or could you use to evaluate these outcomes?

3. What are your key recommendations for evaluating your social prescribing service?

Each table had a facilitator to promote the conversation for each of the three main questions. Thoughts and ideas were then written on paper tablecloths and coloured post-it notes on each table. This allowed everyone to contribute to the conversation and for all voices to be included.

Important Recommendations

A number of important recommendations were formulated throughout the day to help determine how social prescribing services across Ireland should be evaluated.

Determining a clear understanding of the social prescribing role in health and social care was considered extremely important. Participants discussed how having this clear understanding would prevent ‘role-drift’ and reduce inappropriate referrals who are often in need of more substantial support. Reducing the number of inappropriate referrals coming to a service could reduce inefficient time-use for link workers but more importantly ensure individuals get the support they need. Link workers told us that social prescribing should be ‘embedded as part of the health service’ and not just a ‘sticking plaster for waiting lists’.

Some of the barriers identified for carrying out evaluation included time and resources. There was general consensus that services are already being spread thin and completing additional paperwork for evaluation is very difficult. Therefore, additional funding for administrative staff, or dedicated time for link workers to complete evaluations is important. On that note, those who attended believed strongly that evaluating a service is important but if dedicated time is not given to staff to examine evaluation data when collected there is no point in completing evaluations. Along with time to carry out evaluation, dedicated time is needed for link workers to reflect and examine the data they gather to consider enhancements to services and determine their impact.

With regards to developing an evaluation framework for social prescribing services, attendees stressed that evaluation needs to be simple, structured and easy to administer. Attendees also discussed the importance of service user ‘stories‘ to capture the complexities of issues experienced by individuals who attend social prescribing. There was unanimous agreement that there should be universal access for all link workers to a range of evaluation tools and creative measures to capture service user stories. Therefore, case studies might be important to implement into evaluation assessments in addition to standardised measurement tools such as MYCaW (Measure Yourself Concerns and Wellbeing) and SWEMWBS (Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale). A single approach cannot capture everything, as each person who uses social prescribing is unique, so evaluation needs to be adaptable. In order for some commonality regarding evaluation, attendees recommended standardised training to be provided to link workers on evaluation methods.

The importance of collaborating with the HSE to share evaluation resources and to manage the workload of collecting evaluation data was also mentioned frequently throughout the day.

All attendees overwhelmingly identified the importance of involving service users in deciding how and what to evaluate in order to get first-hand experience of what works and what doesn’t work and for that reason we are extremely grateful to attendees who shared their own personal experience of benefiting from social prescribing, during these discussions.

The knowledge and experience from link workers that attended on the day also highlighted that appropriate evaluation practices can help them manage complex cases and the opinions of link workers on how and what to evaluate should be taken into consideration in order to support their needs. Attendees also emphasised the importance of having a clear understanding from funders on their priorities for evaluation in order to ensure continued funding for services.

It is clear from the outcomes of the workshop that there are currently challenges for services to carry out evaluations but that there is a determination for a framework to evolve to guide services in the right direction.

The committee are in the process of collating the information gathered, in order to share it beyond attendees, to funders, commissioners and other researchers, in order to work towards solutions to the evaluation challenges within social prescribing.

The All-Ireland Social Prescribing Network wishes to thank all those who attended the workshop and shared their enormous wealth of experiences of social prescribing during the discussions.

1Members of Research and Evaluation committee of the All-Ireland Social Prescribing Network: Dr. Deirdre Connolly, Trinity College Dublin (TCD); Dr. Karen Galway, Queens University Belfast (QUB); Dr. Natalie Delimata, Atlantic Technological University, (Sligo); Ms. Megan O’Grady, PhD Candidate (TCD); Ms. Jill Mulholland, PhD Candidate (QUB); Ms. Hayley Connolly, Research Assistant, Discipline of Occupational Therapy (TCD).


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