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Abigail's blog: Prevention and cure

Posted on 9 December 2019

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With both my parents and my children succumbing to the flu which has been rampaging around and living in a solidly red constituency during a labour election campaign which has been big on health, my awareness of the NHS has been high over the past few weeks. Prescriptions have been on my mind one way or the other.

In fact they had been on my mind pre-election and pre-flu as well. Just before purdah began, the National Academy for Social Prescribing was launched with ministers from several departments championing its creation. This signalled a step forward in awareness and co-ordination around the idea of social prescribing, which has been developing steadily in recent years. In my own sector – the arts – social prescribing and the number of programmes of work and collaborations between the NHS and artists and arts organisations have been developing over the past decade.  It’s important to note that social prescribing involves a number of sectors, not just the arts. But this is where I’ve seen most activity – over a number of years working in east London with the Royal London Hospital and now at Sage Gateshead working with Great North Children’s Hospital and North East Autism Society. Properly targeted and with good partnerships between health and arts partners, the results can be both significant and (just in case we’re worried the magic money tree isn’t real) cheaper than medical-only routes. Social prescribing will only ever partially off-set medical costs, of course. But it can both play a part in reducing cost and underpin longer-term health. In short, it is a viable part of cure.

Alongside this increased focus on activity, academic institutions such as Kings College London have long had an eye on this matter. KCL has recently launched a major new research piece into three arts in health programmes and their impact. This will contribute to a strong evidence base which ultimately will influence us to make real change in our health and social care systems.  I expect it will take us a very long time to act with confidence and implement major policy.  But there is steady progress.

Social prescribing is, however, only a small part of the picture.  We all know the old adage that prevention is better than cure.  Whilst we build the case for the arts’ role in cure, we forget prevention at our peril.

Listening to music, seeing images, hearing or reading words you love can cause a chemical reaction in our bodies which has a positive effect. The impact of this is that we function more effectively and with greater resilience as human beings – we have greater wellbeing with all of the benefits which this underpins.  What’s more, hearing music, words or seeing pictures with people we like– family or friends – and in an enjoyable environment, also contribute to our sense of wellbeing and purpose as individuals.  This is essentially what the arts, artists, arts organisations offer. Classic prevention territory.  And as we know, prevention tends to be cheaper than even the cheapest cure.

So as we head towards the third decade of the 21st century, I hope we’ll build new confidence in the arts as a basic part of a healthy society with healthy people, in which we equip particularly our young people with a range of opportunities and experiences which will allow them to self-prescribe throughout their lives. At the same time as participating in the cure part of the picture – in championing the arts in health, social prescribing and more broadly the health and social care reform which it implies – we can also deliver big on prevention.  We should nurture both of these routes and build our individual and collective wellbeing through them.

National Academy for Social Prescribing 

Kings College London