Strong primary healthcare services are essential to an effectual and resolute health system. Internationally speaking, Australia demonstrates good-quality primary care, but more can still be done.
Rates of chronic disease, mental health challenges, social isolation and loneliness continue to rise, placing a large economic burden on our tertiary healthcare services and generating poor health outcomes for our people.
Many Australians still cannot afford to visit their GP, whilst those in rural and remote areas struggle to get to one nearby. For those Australians that can easily see a GP, research suggests that around 20% of these visits are for social issues primarily.
Dealing with these needs is so crucial because social determinants of health, or non-medical factors influencing health outcomes, greatly affect the state of our mental wellbeing.
A pharmaceutical or clinical treatment regime may not the best course of action for these patients, but rather a new opportunity presents itself to care for them with a more holistic approach.
Social prescribing enables health professionals and link workers to refer patients, whose mental health may be impacted by non-medical factors including loneliness, social isolation, unemployment, housing or financial stress, to a breadth of community services that can deal with these issues.
Social navigation is a new approach which leverages the inherent trust formed between someone seeking support and a fellow peer to co-create strategies and provide informed referrals to nearby support services. The key distinction between social prescribing and social navigation is that in the latter, a peer works with the person seeking support to make a relevant recommendation instead of a clinician.
Examples of social navigation programs include employment support, book clubs, exercise groups and even dancing classes.
Studies have found that these approaches can improve quality of life and emotional wellbeing, mental and general wellbeing, and levels of depression and anxiety.
Whilst it is clear that a more holistic approach to mental health care is needed, bridging the gap between individual and community-based organisations is the main obstacle to overcome. By implementing digital tools, individuals can link with intermediary social navigators who can make appropriate suggestions for relevant resources and services to support their health and wellbeing.
It is through this that we can combat the threat that social isolation and loneliness poses to our nation’s health.