There’s something interesting happening in the medical world at the moment. And, no, it’s not COVID-19. The usual format of a visit to your doctor is changing and the key difference is, it’s pill-free. GPs are now looking to treat certain conditions ‘holistically’ (their word, not ours), which means rather than sending you down to the pharmacy to pick up your weekly medication, you’ll be given a ‘lifestyle prescription’ instead. These prescriptions range from walking every day to signing up to art classes. And, the best part is, this alternative treatment could not only improve our health, but help us save the NHS, too. Of course, GPs wouldn’t be behind this if the evidence wasn’t up to scratch. Many of us already know that a lot of common conditions, such as type-2 diabetes and high- blood pressure, are linked to our lifestyle and environment. Research shows that lifestyle changes can be up to 10 times more effective than medication at treating conditions such as type-2 diabetes, depression, high-blood pressure, obesity and some autoimmune conditions.
No magic pills
With preventable illnesses costing the NHS around £11 billion a year, according to Public Health England (PHE), it’s little surprise that GPs want to make people aware about the benefits a ‘lifestyle prescription’ can have. “Modern medicine is good at treating acute diseases such as pneumonia and appendicitis, but poor at treating chronic disease [at present, apart from infections, no chronic diseases can be cured] and about two-thirds of consultations in general practice are for chronic disease,” explains Dr Jerry Thompson, author of Curing The Incurable: Beyond the Limits of Medicine. “However, it is here that lifestyle and nutrition can make a real difference.” A sign of the changing times? Dr Roger Henderson agrees: “I think [depending on the condition and the circumstance] that prescribing medication is set to become quite an outdated form of treatment in the next 10, maybe even five years,” says Dr Henderson. “The evidence shows that treating conditions such as diabetes, obesity, high-blood pressure, mental health and some chronic conditions with lifestyle changes is much more effective and more cost-friendly – so this is the way that we’re heading.” But is it as simple as being told to walk more? Not exactly. Like with prescribed medication, lifestyle prescriptions come with check-ups and, while you are expected to put in the work, there is also support on hand if you need it. Digital interventions such as Liva Healthcare, allow people to have a health coach in their pocket, keeping you on track, setting goals and providing you with a personalised plan. In fact, 44 percent of Liva users living with pre-diabetes reverse their diagnosis within six months.
However, lifestyle programmes aren’t the only holistic intervention that GPs have up their sleeves. Known better as ‘green prescriptions’, GPs are set to offer this alongside other treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Green prescriptions can range from regular jogs in the park and countryside rambles, to community food growing sessions and birdwatching. On the other side of the world, green prescribing is nothing new. In New Zealand, they’ve been using this form of treatment since 1998 and eight out of 10 GPs there have prescribed it to a patient. Progress is tracked via a support worker, who encourages you to keep up your daily activity. Green prescription pilots have already been trialled in Dartmoor, Exmoor, Liverpool, Weymouth and Portland, with positive results. Healthcare professionals are keen for these prescriptions to be seen as part of a strategy based on a planetary health perspective – in short, in order to care for ourselves, we also need to care for our planet, which is why green prescriptions that give back to the environment are favourable.
Mindfulness and meditation
Over the past few years, the NHS have cited plenty of studies to show the effectiveness of mindfulness and meditation against mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and burnout caused by stress. The Mental Health Foundation estimates that as many as 30 percent of GPs now refer patients to mindfulness training alongside regular CBT therapies. In a paper published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) helped patients just as much as antidepressants. Why not try a walking meditation for a double dosage of goodness?
Loneliness and isolation is a huge challenge that the country faces at the moment, but social prescribing is thought to be an effective buffer against it. “To tackle loneliness and isolation, social prescribing is being used,” says Dr Henderson. “This means patients could be prescribed anything from art classes to regular telephone calls.” Social prescribing can be used for other conditions too. An example of it being put into action is the ‘Arts On Prescription’ scheme in Gloucestershire. Patients with lung conditions have had singing lessons; children with diabetes have been prescribed dance classes; and children with epilepsy have attended photography classes. The programme has had success with 700 patients so far. Or how about a daily #walktowellbeing with a friend? It’s free!