Doctors and nurses should routinely tell patients to take part in sports and social activities rather than prescribing them drugs, the new health secretary has recommended. Matt Hancock backed a dramatic expansion of “social prescribing” as a way of relieving the pressure on the NHS as well as improving patients’ chances of recovering from their illness. GPs in particular are increasingly advising patients, especially those who are isolated or have certain mental health problems, such as depression, to take part in activities including bingo and gardening, instead of simply writing them a prescription. “There is a growing evidence base that social prescribing can be better for patients than medicine. Of course there will also be medicine prescribed – and rightly so – but I want to see the balance shifted in favour of social prescribing,” Hancock said in a speech at the NHS Expo in Manchester, NHS England’s annual showcase of innovation in patient care. “The nature of social prescribing is that what you’re prescribing is a social activity, so of course, anybody can suggest to somebody that they do a social activity. My wife regularly tells me to do more exercise. But what I really care about is ensuring that within the NHS it is normal practice to consider a formal social prescription and that the growing evidence base for the value of social prescribing is taken on board by practitioners,” he added. All health professionals, not just GPs, could advise patients like that, Hancock said. Social prescribing involves putting someone in touch with a service or activity that is seen as therapeutic and often includes referring them to a link worker who works with people to access local sources of support. Hancock also used his first address to a gathering of NHS bosses to warn that the health service’s information technology is so archaic that patients are dying because of poor communication between staff. “The NHS is at the same moment the world’s biggest opportunity for saving lives through modern technology and the world’s most frustrating place to work for its IT,” he said. “The net result is not just scarce resources wasted but countless hours of clinical staff spent trying to work broken systems, patients being given suboptimal care because systems didn’t communicate and ultimately lives lost.” But, he added: “Now is the moment to draw a line and put the failures of the past behind us and set our sights on the NHS being the most cutting-edge system in the world for the use of technology, to improve our health, to make our lives easier, and to make the money go further.” Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS trusts, endorsed Hancock’s exhortation to implement digital transformation as an urgent priority. “If we are honest we will admit that the NHS has been slow to grab the many advantages of the digital revolution. That has to change, and we all have to accept that it will challenge working practices and those who constantly find reasons why we should not adopt new ways of delivering care,” Dickson said.