Background: Social prescribing (SP) involves linking patients in primary care with services provided by the voluntary and community sector (VCS). Despite growing interest within NHS primary care, it remains unclear how and under what circumstances SP might contribute to good practice. Aim: To define ‘good’ practice in SP by identifying context-specific enablers and tensions. To contribute to the development of an evidence-based framework for theorising and evaluating SP within primary care. Design & setting: Realist review of secondary data from primary care-based SP schemes. Method: Academic articles and grey literature were searched for qualitative and quantitative evidence following the Realist And Meta-narrative Evidence Syntheses — Evolving Standards (RAMESES). Common SP practices were characterised in three settings (general practice, link workers, and community sector) using archetypes that ranged from best to worst practice. Results: A total of 140 studies were included for analysis. Resources were identified influencing the type and potential impact of SP practices and four dimensions were outlined in which opportunities for good practice arise: 1) individual characteristics (stakeholder’s buy-in, vocation, and knowledge); 2) interpersonal relations (trustful, bidirectional, informed, supportive, and transparent and convenient interactions within and across sectors); 3) organisational contingencies (the availability of a predisposed practice culture, leadership, training opportunities, supervision, information governance, resource adequacy, accessibility, and continuity of care within organisations); and 4) policy structures (bottom-up and coherent policymaking, stable funding, and suitable monitoring strategies). Findings were synthesised in a multilevel, dynamic, and usable SP framework. Conclusion: The realist review and resulting framework revealed that SP is not inherently advantageous. Specific individual, interpersonal, organisational, and policy resources are needed to ensure SP best practice in primary care.
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