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A group of Harvard College students kicked off a nationwide movement advocating for social prescribing — a practice allowing physicians to prescribe non-medical interventions — in a webinar Monday.
The student group, known as the Harvard Undergraduate Initiative Students for Social Prescribing, formally launched the national movement — the United States Social Prescribing Student Movement — in conjunction with Social Prescribing USA and the Harvard Global Health Institute.
The undergraduate group was founded last March and is the first chapter of the new nationwide movement. The chapter has 12 members working to design social prescribing pilot projects, develop best practices around social prescribing, and advise activists and policymakers.
Daniel Morse, the founding director of Social Prescribing USA, spoke at the launch webinar about why social prescribing is necessary, citing the prevalence of depression, obesity, and addiction in the United States.
“America faces a bunch of silent crises,” Morse said. “We aren’t solving these effectively with just pills and procedures alone. We need something else.”
Morse pointed to a 2019 review published by the World Health Organization, which found through an examination of more than 3,000 studies that engaging in the arts can improve physical and mental health. He also referenced a 2020 study by Harvard’s School of Public Health showing an association between volunteering and living longer.
Under social prescribing, physicians refer patients to local organizations for volunteering, engagement in the arts, and other activities, in addition to prescribing medical treatments.
“These flourishing activities can be essential drivers of wellness,” Morse said.
Morse added that traditionally, health care has not addressed the importance of social activities in promoting health.
“A new chapter in our understanding of health is emerging, and it starts with a simple idea and a simple question,” Morse said. “That question is, ‘What if doctors prescribe more than just pills? What if they prescribe those very activities that bolster health — access to arts, nature, volunteering, access to social services like food and housing assistance?’”
In an interview, Madeline Maier ’23, the president and co-founder of the undergraduate social prescribing organization, said that her internship at the National Academy for Social Prescribing in the United Kingdom was the inspiration behind launching the Harvard group.
“We can bring the principles that they have there to us in the U.S., and those principles are that not everything just boils down to your biological health,” Maier said. “Everything contributes to your overall well-being, your stress, your eating, your financial situation, your overall environment.”
Rachel Chen ’23, another co-founder of the group, said social prescribing inspires her because it represents more than “a systematic health care change.”
“This is a cultural revolution,” Chen said. “This is a cultural shift toward understanding patients as people, having a better and more compassionate holistic care system, and empowering local communities to take care of each other.”
“It’s people knowing that they can turn to each other for support, rather than going just to a doctor for a pill,” she added.
—Staff writer Makanaka Nyandoro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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