Design for Social Prescribing: Bridging Silos for Health Promotion

It’s no secret that US health systems are in need of major transformations. While some agents are trying to improve efficiency of current operations or promote better experiences for patients, others are embracing broader social factors influencing health outcomes. Many are developing new ways of working that are a better fit for people’s homes and social structures than medical environments. Several are searching for new ways to collaborate with stakeholders from non-traditional domains, such as arts and environmental conservation, to increase access to broader and more diverse healing and health promotion pathways. Very few deny the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare how larger social determinants such as housing, employment, social support structures, mental health, social isolation, and access to safe areas for physical activity impact the overall health and well-being of individuals and communities. 

It was in this context that Reena Shukla, the Design Lab’s first Builder Fellow, thought to explore the value design brings to the early stages of complex initiatives. While at the D-Lab, Reena experienced the usefulness of design in helping organizations navigate the uncertainty of complex new endeavors laden with not only concrete factors driven by technology and economics, but also ambiguous behavioral factors driven by emotion and culture. She then saw an opportunity for design to support organizations behind an emerging movement in the US: social prescribing.

Social prescribing commonly involves health professionals referring people to social activities in their communities to bolster their overall health and well-being. These might be nature walks, ballroom dance classes, visits to museums, cooking classes, or any other ways that people can engage with to address their social needs. Social prescribing has been integrated into the national health systems of countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Japan, and only recently began to take root in the US. A growing body of evidence suggests social prescribing to be an effective way to combat loneliness, chronic disease management, depression, and other social factors demanding transformations in contemporary US health systems.

Over the course of 6 months, Reena led a three-phase design-led project called Design for Social Prescribing: Bridging Silos for Health Promotion in collaboration with University of Florida’s Center for Arts in Medicine and the Social Prescribing USA. One of these phases included a first-of-its-kind convening held on October 27 – 28, 2022, that brought together 40+ participants from across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Participants included representatives from diverse sectors of healthcare, arts and culture, volunteerism, public health, government, community development, nature conservation, technology, design, and academia. Over eight hours, participants worked in cross-sector groups to apply design knowledge to the aspirations and needs of the social prescribing initiatives in the U.S. They listened to diverse perspectives, challenged their own assumptions, examined their existing beliefs, and opened themselves up to new ways of thinking about the future of social prescribing.  

Since, several new initiatives and strategic shifts emerged from their involvement in this project including the prioritization of anti-racist principles to design program evaluations, the introduction of social prescribing to state service commission executives and health insurance representatives, and new collaborations bridging technical and policy expertise to increase knowledge and awareness for health care practitioners on social health approaches.

Reena Shukla was the first Builder Fellow at the Design Laboratory. Builders are accomplished professionals who want to bring an early-stage project related to design and well-being for a year of focused work. 

To learn more about Reena’s work on social prescribing, CLICK HERE for the final report. 

For additional resources on social prescribing, visit:

Photos by: Kent Dayton, Photographer for the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health