Cultural environments can improve health and wellbeing through social prescribing

Oxford University’s world-class gardens, libraries and museums could benefit the health and wellbeing of Oxfordshire residents through social prescribing, according to a report published today by an interdisciplinary team at Oxford University.

Social prescribing takes a more holistic approach to health by enabling GPs, nurses and other primary care workers to refer a patient to community-based groups or services that can offer practical, social or emotional support. It forms a key part of the NHS Long Term Plan and delivery of Universal Personalised Care.

The report, entitled In what ways can gardens, libraries and museums improve wellbeing through social prescribing?, shows that cultural environments can support health and wellbeing by helping people learn new things, develop new skills, make social connections and gain a greater sense of structure and purpose.

The 12-month research project identified three key concepts that underpin the potential of garden, library and museum activities for improving health. 

  1. Cultural venues can be seen as 'therapeutic landscapes' – spaces that are conducive to healing and which serve as the location for social networks and therapeutic activity.  
  2. Engaging in these activities 'creates a sense of flow', which is a state in which people get so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. This flow helps individuals concentrate on the activity at hand, meaning that other concerns and worries are forgotten.  
  3. Garden, library and museum activities 'draw on social capital' by encouraging socialising and the building of social networks and reciprocal relationships, which can in turn contribute to positive health and wellbeing.

The research project brought together the experience and expertise of health researchers in the University's Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM), general practitioners, heritage sector specialists in GLAM, and members of the public.

“Working with the GLAM team, we wanted to explore how these community-based ‘assets’, the gardens, libraries and museums, could help to improve people’s wellbeing,” said Amadea Turk, researcher with the CEBM, who collated the report. “But we also wanted to identify where there were gaps in the evidence and how we could work together to ensure we’re doing the right things in sustainable ways that will really help people.”

The research team engaged with members of the public and the report includes case studies of how these environments have benefited individuals. “We, like many other arts and cultural organisations, recognise our spaces have an important role to play in people’s health and wellbeing,” said Lucy Shaw, Director of Programmes and Partnerships in GLAM. “This report is a pioneering step towards an integrated, effective and sustainable social prescribing offering for the University’s gardens, libraries and museums – one that is tailored to the needs of the people of Oxfordshire.”

“A social prescription is not necessarily a replacement for medication – where needed – but it allows us to acknowledge that health and wellbeing can be more complex than ‘just’ a biological illness,” explained Dr Kamal Mahtani, Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the CEBM, and a practising Oxfordshire GP. “There’s a range of social, environmental and economic factors that can affect someone’s health and wellbeing – things like stress or anxiety caused by financial hardship, or depression linked to social isolation. A social prescription might help facilitate a patient towards other help and support, for example, Citizens Advice or activity groups at local venues, including public gardens, museums and libraries.”

In researching this report, the CEBM and GLAM teams have also developed an interdisciplinary Social Prescribing Research Network to ensure that this intervention has a growing and robust evidence base. The report urges others to join them in support of this cause.

In the words of the Rt Hon. Lord Howarth of Newport CBE, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing: “The passion and enthusiasm with which this report has been written ensure that it is elevated beyond a simple exchange of ideas, to a catalyst to inspire and motivate further the social prescribing movement.”

The report can be downloaded from the project website.