News announced last month, at ukactive’s National Summit, is that the fitness and leisure sector is to offer free sessions for up to 100,000 people through social prescribing.
A partnership between ukactive, NHS England and Improvement (NHSE/I), Sport England and the National Academy for Social Prescribing will seek to highlight the role of fitness within social prescribing, pledging to identify an initial 500,000 hours of activity in the first year of the scheme.
The commitment aims to ensure that the fitness and leisure sector is better integrated within the healthcare system and, on the face of it, this can be nothing but good news for the industry, as it could lead to an increase in users. But as I see it, there are two as yet unaddressed challenges.
Firstly, I have queries around the financing of the scheme. In short, who’s going to pay for it? It's not clear if specific funding is being made available and, while most leisure providers will of course want to offer free places for the greater good, the need to recover revenue by participation from their paying customers may outweigh this. Regardless of how much they would like to offer exercise sessions for free to support the nation’s health and wellbeing – how can a non-paying referral via social prescribing take highly sort after spaces over paying customers? The need to prove that this new delivery model can attract new customers and be viable is essential. This is clearly even more important in post-COVID world, where operators who were barely making ends meet before and are now really struggling financially.
Huw Edwards, CEO of ukactive, said that “being physically active has never been so important and now is the time to recognise it as a major solution to help reduce the pressure on the NHS. This partnership is a great opportunity for the fitness sector to play a crucial role in helping the country’s health … this is a real opportunity to see what is working and what we can replicate to make physical activity part of the solution to improve people’s quality of life.”
I couldn’t agree more, but this opportunity comes with a cost. The Long Term Plan commits to supporting 2.5 million people through personalised care by 2024 but at no stage has anyone mentioned where the payment is going to come from.
Secondly, I find myself asking questions around evidence. The NHS will only continue dialogue if hard evidence can be delivered to highlight that physical activity and health programmes make a substantial change to the nation’s health. Not many leisure providers are currently set up to provide this.
“Ah-ha” I hear you cry! This is where ReferAll can offer support, ensuring the sector can connect the dots for the politicians and stakeholders. Yes! We can provide operators with our specialist data platform to supply fact-based evidence, figures and insights, a platform for leisure providers to provide the evidence required.
To date, a great deal of funding has been made available for social prescribing services in comparison to outcome-based, physical activity services. How will people that are signposted to the leisure sector be offered sessions if there is no support available to fund them?
We need to begin this dialogue right now. This new partnership WILL introduce more people to physical activity and it WILL make it easier for healthcare professionals to build activity into the health plans they are prescribing. But this landmark move can only be a success if it’s built on solid data.
We would welcome a chance to talk with colleagues around the real life practicalities an announcement like this requires. Time for us to put in a call to the National Social Prescribing Academy …