‘Let’s put health stores at the heart of the social prescribing conversation’

“I think there’s a fantastic opportunity to put health food stores at the heart of the social prescribing conversation” says the health food retailer and brand-owner Cheryl Thallon. 

The founder of Viridian Nutrition, and a long-standing committee member of Health Stores UK, has just returned from the 2024 edition of the International Social Prescribing Conference in London. 

Cheryl says: “It’s been fantastic to spend two days at this really inspiring conference, meeting link workers and social prescribers from all over the country and encouraging them to find – and actively get involved with – their local health food store. 

“It’s been wonderful to hear that about 25% of people already know their local health store. But that means 75% don’t. So we’ve been giving out new Health Stores UK leaflets which explain the valuable role health stores play in improving health and wellbeing in their communities. They feature a QR code which takes people straight to the Store Finder feature on Health Stores UK’s consumer website HealthyDoesIt

“Social prescribing is about taking a person centric way of viewing health and wellbeing, that isn’t medicalised. It isn’t about saying what’s wrong with you, it’s saying what do you want in life? What are your health ambitions?”

‘The response we’ve had at the conference has been fantastic. There must have been 400 link workers at the event. Link workers and the Social Prescribing Network are linked in to their doctor’s surgeries and they encourage people to find alternative ‘prescriptions’. So instead of that being a medication, it might involve joining a local fishing group, or a yoga class, or meditation class. Or it could be about helping with problems associated with homelessness or loneliness. They really do some incredible work. 

“I’ve been following the development of the social prescribing movement for a number of years. One of the speakers at this very high calibre conference was Michael Dixon, who will be known to many in his role as the King’s personal physician. We invited him to speak at an HFI event a few years ago where he talked about the enormous potential for social prescribing, when it was at a very early stage in its development. He continues to be a driving force in what is now a growing international movement. Of course, the King – and previously as the Prince of Wales – has had a long-standing interest in integrative medicine and his support for Michael Dixon’s ambitions for the Social Prescriber Network has clearly been so important.

“Social prescribing is about taking a person-centric view of health and wellbeing. It isn’t about saying what’s wrong with you – it’s saying, what do you want in life? What are your health ambitions? It’s a complete flip of the traditional view that the NHS and health professionals have taken.

“I’m really keen for health stores to be added to the toolbox of resources available to link workers. There is a big overlap of thinking. As with social prescribing, health stores are very much human being focused. They are also about listening to an individual person’s needs and supporting them in creating a framework for their own health – physical and spiritual. And they’re about providing both practical and emotional support. These are things that health stores offer, probably uniquely in retail. 

“So, I think there’s a great opportunity to put health stores as the heart of the conversation about social prescribing, and show link workers we offer a whole range of practical resources that they can easily tap into”

“So, I think there’s a great opportunity to put health stores at the heart of the conversation about social prescribing, and show link workers that we offer a whole range of practical resources that they can easily tap into. I was especially delighted to get a health store included in the visual representation of social prescribing in action that an artist created from delegate feedback. It felt that we were on the map!

“I’d strongly urge health store owners to get in touch with their local GP surgery, or the charity or NGO that their local link worker works out of, and ask if you can make contact with them. Let’s show them all of the brilliant things we are doing in our communities, whether that’s an in-store health talk or a demo on how to build a healthy meal inexpensively, or a Chatty Cafe session. Let’s make the effort to connect. Because if we’re going to get proper integrative medicine in this country, it will need good connections all round.”  

• The International Social Prescribing Conference is organised jointly by the National Academy for Social Prescribing, the Social Prescribing Network and the University of Westminster

What is social prescribing?*
In essence, social prescribing is an approach that connects people to activities, groups and support that improves health and wellbeing. It aims to help with the many things that affect people’s health that can’t be treated by doctors or medicine alone. 

Social prescribing often begins with a referral from a GP, hospital, charity or other organisation to a Social Prescribing Link Worker. Link workers listen to people and try to understand their situation, and what matters to them. They then “link” that person to organisations and information that can help. There are also other people in the community, including charity workers, youth workers or faith leaders, who can identify people who might need support and help them connect to relevant activities, groups or services.

Growing evidence base
A growing evidence shows that social prescribing can take pressure off the NHS by reducing the need for GP appointments and for medical prescriptions. The evidence suggests that social prescribing can have a positive impact on a very wide range of outcomes, including decreases in loneliness, improvements in mental health, in social connections and in overall wellbeing. 

* Source: National Academy for Social Prescribing 

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