Social prescribing can help people access care and services in their local community, but often, it is underutilised. From tackling isolation to connecting people with similar interests, the practice can be especially helpful for the disability community.
In 2019, the National Academy for Social Prescribing (NASP) was formed. Around the same time, major changes to GP contracts were taking place: for the first time ever, these included social prescribing as part of primary care and surgeries were able to access funding to employ a link worker. This marked the first time that social prescribing was freely available as part of mainstream healthcare.
Despite the new requirements to include social prescribing, it is still a lesser-known form of support. With a new campaign, Social Prescribing and Me, NASP are helping to raise awareness, urging people to utilise this service.
“A lot of health problems are caused by what we call social determinants, that could be loneliness, your income level, social prescribing is about trying to recognise and address those factors,” highlights Charlotte Osborn-Forde, chief executive at NASP.
Social prescribing is part of the medical system, but recognises that other factors can impact on your health. The practice can help a very wide-range of people in the community, whether they are struggling with feelings of loneliness, the cost of living, physical barriers in their community or anything that is preventing them from forming good quality relationships outside of the home.
“Social prescribing is hugely inclusive, and at the heart of the NHS guidance about it is this phrase called ‘what matters to me’, that’s about making sure social prescribing is personalised to each person’s needs,” explains Charlotte. “It could be as simple as transport or money to access activities, building confidence when meeting new people because that can be really frightening.
“It can connect you to things in the community that could address some of the reasons that your health is deteriorating.”
Link workers are at the heart of social prescribing, responsible for learning about people’s needs and offering solutions in the local community.
“People who are digitally literate can look things up online and find what’s on offer, so link workers are really there for people that would struggle to do that,” offers Charlotte. “Their role is to be supportive and inclusive, and to work around a person’s needs whether they are physical or communication needs.”
You can visit a link worker in your local GP surgery, but they are also able to do home visits to ensure everyone has access to this vital service.
“They talk to people very holistically about what’s important to them and also what the barriers are to accessing those things,” explains Charlotte. “The link worker will then look at all of the resources available in the community. It could be a local art group, helping someone go to the park with their grandchild, or even making sure they have all of the benefits they are entitled to so that they have a little bit more income.”
Often, link workers connect people with community transport schemes or local organisations, setting them up to form meaningful relationships. This support doesn’t necessarily stop once a solution is offered: link workers are qualified to attend things like community groups with someone, helping them to take the first step or settle in to a new environment.
“Once that person has made friends or has settled in, the link worker will then go on to help the next person who needs it,” states Charlotte.
Despite a requirement to offer these services and the positive influence they can have in integrated health and care services, there is still a shortage of link workers, and where they do exist, they are often overrun.
“In an ideal world link workers could see everyone in person and go with them to groups in the community, but often they are under a lot of pressure because so many people need help,” stresses Charlotte. “It might be that they’re just providing information and support over the telephone.”
“We want to see more social prescribing, we want more people to access it and we want it to be of a really good quality so that where it does happen it’s really making a difference to people,” adds Charlotte.
Currently, NASP is working to raise awareness of social prescribing and its importance to ensure steps like this are possible.
Accessing social prescribing could help prevent health issues in the future, and so if you could benefit, Charlotte would encourage you to reach out for support, she says: “We would encourage everybody to ask their GP practice, next time you’re in why not ask the receptionist or your doctor?
“There are lots of other services out there, so if you are digitally literate you can always have a look on your local council website, search for local charities and they will give you some information and a phone number you can call.”