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Background: Social prescribing is gaining traction internationally. It is an approach which seeks to address non-medical and health-related social needs through taking a holistic person-centred and community-based approach. This involves connecting people with and supporting them to access groups and organisations within their local communities. It is hoped that social prescribing might improve health inequities and reduce reliance on healthcare services. In the UK, social prescribing link workers have become core parts of primary care teams. Despite growing literature on the implementation of social prescribing, to date there has been no synthesis that develops a theoretical understanding of the factors that shape link workers’ experiences of their role. Methods: We undertook a meta-ethnographic evidence synthesis of qualitative literature to develop a novel conceptual framework that explains how link workers experience their roles. We identified studies using a systematic search of key databases, Google alerts, and through scanning reference lists of included studies. We followed the eMERGe guidance when conducting and reporting this meta-ethnography. Results: Our synthesis included 21 studies and developed a “line of argument” or overarching conceptual framework which highlighted inherent and interacting tensions present at each of the levels that social prescribing operates. These tensions may arise from a mismatch between the policy logic of social prescribing and the material and structural reality, shaped by social, political, and economic forces, into which it is being implemented. Conclusions: The tensions highlighted in our review shape link workers’ experiences of their role. They may call into question the sustainability of social prescribing and the link worker role as currently implemented, as well as their ability to deliver desired outcomes such as reducing health inequities or healthcare service utilisation. Greater consideration should be given to how the link worker role is defined, deployed, and trained. Furthermore, thought should be given to ensuring that the infrastructure into which social prescribing is being implemented is sufficient to meet needs. Should social prescribing seek to improve outcomes for those experiencing social and economic disadvantage, it may be necessary for social prescribing models to allow for more intensive and longer-term modes of support.

Original publication




Journal article


BMC Medicine

Publication Date