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.