Searching for real-world effectiveness of health care innovations: scoping study of social prescribing for diabetes

Karen Pilkington, Martin Loef, Marie Polley

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Background - Social prescribing is a process whereby primary care patients are linked or referred to nonmedical sources of support in the community and voluntary sector. It is a concept that has arisen in practice and implemented widely in the United Kingdom and has been evaluated by various organizations.

Objective - The aim of our study was to characterize, collate, and analyze the evidence from evaluation of social prescribing for type 2 diabetes in the United Kingdom and Ireland, comparing information available on publicly available websites with the published literature.

Methods - We used a broad, pragmatic definition of social prescribing and conducted Web-based searches for websites of organizations providing potentially relevant services. We also explored linked information. In parallel, we searched Medline, PubMed, Cochrane Library, Google Scholar, and reference lists for relevant studies published in peer-reviewed journals. We extracted the data systematically on the characteristics, any reported evaluation, outcomes measured and results, and terminology used to describe each service.

Results - We identified 40 UK- or Ireland-based projects that referred people with type 2 diabetes and prediabetes to nonmedical interventions or services provided in the community. We located evaluations of 24 projects; 11 as published papers, 12 as Web-based reports, and 1 as both a paper and a Web-based report. The interventions and services identified included structured group educational programs, exercise referral schemes, and individualized advice and support with signposting of health-related activities in the community. Although specific interventions such as community-based group educational programs and exercise referral have been evaluated in randomized controlled trials, evaluation of individualized social prescribing services involving people with type 2 diabetes has, in most cases, used pre-post and mixed methods approaches. These evaluations report generic improvement in a broad range of outcomes and provide an insight into the criteria for the success of social prescribing services.

Conclusions - Our study revealed the varied models of social prescribing and nonmedical, community-based services available to people with type 2 diabetes and the extent of evaluation of these, which would not have been achieved by searching databases alone. The findings of this scoping study do not prove that social prescribing is an effective measure for people with type 2 diabetes in the United Kingdom, but can be used to inform future evaluation and contribute to the development of the evidence base for social prescribing. Accessing Web-based information provides a potential method for investigating how specific innovative health concepts, such as social prescribing, have been translated, implemented, and evaluated in practice. Several challenges were encountered including defining the concept, focusing on process plus intervention, and searching diverse, evolving Web-based sources. Further exploration of this approach will inform future research on the application of innovative health care concepts into practice.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere20
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2 Feb 2017


  • diabetes mellitus, type 2
  • evaluation studies
  • primary health care
  • program evaluation


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