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How community support can help patients and save the NHS

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25 August 2021

How community support can help patients and save the NHS

25 August 2021 • Viewing time: 1 minute

Our researchers have shown how local voluntary groups improve the wellbeing of patients with long-term health conditions — and make us all happier and healthier.

Over the last eight years, I have led a team researching something called social prescribing. It’s a new approach to healthcare that helps marginalised, disadvantaged or vulnerable people by giving them social support through local community groups.

As a result of our research, social prescribing has been rolled out by the NHS across England, helping 900,000 people every year. And the bottom-up, community-based approach has played a huge role in helping the most vulnerable people in society — especially during the pandemic.

So how does it work?

The first stage: an NHS referral

It all starts with a standard appointment with a healthcare professional such as a GP. We’ve worked with health services to help them identify people who might benefit from social prescribing. 

Generally, these are people who are being treated for a health or mental health condition, where the medication can only take them so far. They often make regular visits to their GP not just because they are unwell but because they need emotional and social support — indeed, the lack of this support can often cause or exacerbate their condition.

In many cases the NHS has already given them all the medical treatment they can, and the patient just needs someone with the time to sit down with them and find out more about their needs and wider interests. This is time that many health professionals simply don’t have. That’s where social prescribing comes in.

The second stage: the link worker

Once a patient has been identified, their GP refers them to a link worker. This specially recruited person spends time getting to know the patient. They discover their needs and their interests, and find local community groups for the patient to join.

A lot of the link worker’s job is to overcome barriers. For example, if there's a lunch club in the next village but the patient can't get to it, they can provide help to access transport. If the patient is interested in crafts, they'll speak to the local craft group to make sure it's equipped to support them.

As part of the nationwide rollout of social prescribing, many link workers were recruited in early 2020 — just before the Covid pandemic. Throughout the subsequent lockdowns, link workers have had an unexpected but valuable role supporting vulnerable and isolated people, bringing them food and medicines and providing GPs with a resource they wouldn't have otherwise had.

Woman smiling in a meeting

The third stage: community groups

The final part of the social prescribing journey are the voluntary and community groups that the patients join. Some are long-established and others are created as part of the programme. Many are supported by volunteers.

Whether a group is based on walking, art, games or any other interest, they all provide company, a listening ear and social support — which can be crucial in alleviating long-term conditions and improving wellbeing.

As a result of social prescribing, many community groups have received extra investment, and more volunteers are focusing their effort where it’s most needed. This builds social cohesion and benefits the whole community. 

Healthier patients, and a more effective NHS

Our work on social prescribing has shown that it has many benefits. In patients we saw an improvement in their mental wellbeing and their health, with people with the lowest levels of personal wellbeing prior to referral gaining the most from the service.

For the NHS, it relieves pressure on the system. The support patients receive from social prescribing means they’re spending less time at their GP surgery. Patients using long-term mental health services can be released earlier. All this means that stretched resources can be targeted more efficiently.

Our findings led the NHS to commit to investing £35m a year in social prescribing nationwide. And there’s international interest too, with our advice being sought by health services around the world, from Japan to the USA.

The future of our communities

Ultimately, social prescribing is all about the link between healthcare and communities. The Covid pandemic has shown just how important that link is, with mutual aid groups springing up organically. 

Positive change works best from the bottom up. Our communities are an asset which deserve to be invested in. My hope is that, as we come out of the pandemic, voluntary and community groups will be valued properly. Because beyond a time of crisis, they can play a vital role in our everyday happiness and wellbeing.

 

Staff

Chris Dayson 208858

Associate Professor Chris Dayson

Associate Professor

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Nadia Bashir 204773

Nadia Bashir

Research Fellow

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Chris Damm 224962

Dr Christopher Damm

Research Fellow

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Ellen Bennett 208337

Ellen Bennett

Research Fellow

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About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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