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Background: National Health Service (NHS) England supports social prescribing in order to address social determinants of health, which account for approximately 80% of all health outcomes. Nevertheless, data on ongoing social prescribing activities are lacking. Although NHS England has attempted to overcome this problem by recommending 3 standardized primary care codes, these codes do not capture the social prescribing activity to a level of granularity that would allow for fair attribution of outcomes to social prescribing. Objective: In this study, we explored whether an alternative approach to coding social prescribing activity, specifically through a social prescribing ontology, can be used to capture the social prescriptions used in primary care in greater detail. Methods: The social prescribing ontology, implemented according to the Web Ontology Language, was designed to cover several key concepts encompassing social determinants of health. Readv2 and Clinical Terms Version 3 codes were identified using the NHS Terms Browser. The Royal College of General Practitioners Research Surveillance Centre, a sentinel network of over 1000 primary care practices across England covering a population of more than 4,000,000 registered patients, was used for data analyses for a defined period (ie, January 2011 to December 2019). Results: In all, 668 codes capturing social prescriptions addressing different social determinants of health were identified for the social prescribing ontology. For the study period, social prescribing ontology codes were used 5,504,037 times by primary care practices of the Royal College of General Practitioners Research Surveillance Centre as compared to 29,606 instances of use of social prescribing codes, including NHS England's recommended codes. Conclusions: A social prescribing ontology provides a powerful alternative to the codes currently recommended by NHS England to capture detailed social prescribing activity in England. The more detailed information thus obtained will allow for explorations about whether outputs or outcomes of care delivery can be attributed to social prescriptions, which is essential for demonstrating the overall value that social prescribing can deliver to the NHS and health care systems.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of Medical Internet Research

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