NHS launches healthcare revolution to ditch drugs

Family doctors will be asked to end a reliance on “a pill for every ill” in “one of the biggest reforms in modern health care ever seen”. Instead of routinely handing out costly medicines, GPs and chemists will be asked to consider “social prescriptions” aimed at tackling the root causes of health issues.

The move, which could save the NHS millions a year, will include alternatives such as free gym memberships, meditation classes, gardening and even debt management help.

The scheme, which is set to be unveiled in spring by NHS England, is aimed at weaning the health service off a culture of “a pill for every ill”.

The Government has earmarked £50million this year to prepare for the scheme, which will be implemented at 42 health authorities – known as Integrated Care Boards.

Under the initiative, GP surgeries and family doctor pharmacists will be able to access the funds to help them “de-prescribe” their patients where non-pharmaceutical alternatives are appropriate.

Medics will be given tools to help them navigate a growing network of “social prescriptions” to help with problems such as chronic pain, depression, anxiety, debt or poor housing.

These will be offered free and drawn from existing NHS, local government and voluntary organisations in each region.

In some cases, doctors will encourage patients to try a social prescription before starting on a drug. In others, patients will be supported to swap existing, often long-term, medications.

Issues such as debt, often a driver of depression and other mental health problems, can be dealt with by helping patients better manage their finances.

Research has shown patients taking unnecessary cocktails of drugs risk harmful side effects with little or no benefit.

Professor Tony Avery, NHS England’s national clinical prescribing director, is leading the initiative. He said the aim is to bring about a “culture change”.

He said: “This initiative could lead to one of the biggest transformations in modern health care that we have seen, not only saving money but also improving lives in a sustainable way.”

It is estimated adverse reactions to medication cost NHS England £98million a year.

Cutting back on drugs to make the nation healthier was one of the radical suggestions of the National Overprescribing Review carried out by Dr Keith Ridge, a former Chief Pharmaceutical Officer for England. Published in 2021, it concluded the country could benefit from a wider view of what makes people sick and examined how to promote health without long-term prescriptions.

It found 6.5 percent of hospital admissions are caused by adverse drug reactions. These are also linked to 1,708 deaths a year.

It concluded the health service could realistically reduce the number of prescriptions handed out by 10 percent – 100 million fewer each year.

Speaking to the Sunday Express ahead of the launch, Prof Avery said: “We want to bring about a change in the way we use long-term prescriptions. Some pills help people but many patients are continuing on drugs which are not only no longer helping their symptoms but also doing more harm than good by causing unwanted side effects.

“We want to safely reduce and stop these unnecessary and harmful prescriptions and support people in other ways.”

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He added: “I want to see this approach embedded in our culture. This not only benefits patients but it could also save the NHS tens of millions of pounds.”

Drugs particularly under scrutiny include powerful painkillers such as opioids, antidepressants, and sleeping pills, all of which can lead to addiction. Prof Avery and his team will also urge doctors to focus on patients who are taking multiple drugs to work out if they need them or if one of their prescriptions is interacting with another causing side effects.

At least 15 percent of people take more than five drugs a day.

His comments follow last year’s launch of the College of Medicine’s Beyond Pills campaign that highlighted the benefits of social prescribing.

GPs handed out 1.14 billion items last year and dispensing in surgeries doubled from 10 prescription items per head each year in 1996 to 20 in 2016.

Dr Michael Dixon, chairman of the College of Medicine and medical adviser to King Charles, welcomed the move. He said: “A new medical mindset is needed, which goes to the heart of true health care.”

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