COVID-19 has brought into the limelight why we need social prescribing link workers and how essential their role is. Members of the National Association of Link Workers have reported an increased workload as GPs, nurses, and indeed the entire healthcare system increasingly utilise them to support their patients’ welfare needs. There is currently no cure for COVID-19 so we are compelled to rely on own personal resilience and self-management strategies to cope with its impact. Our members have reported increased patient demand, appreciation, and understanding of the need for their role.
The role of a social prescribing link worker is underpinned by the social model of health. Social prescribing link workers support people to identify the social determinants of health that matter the most to them. They then support them to overcome their biggest barriers and provide access to the right support or appropriate coping strategies. This enables people to become resilient and capable of taking control of their health and wellbeing, which reduces reliance on health services for non-medical issues.
In short, link workers act as the glue between health, social and community services.
This is particularly needed in the pandemic. Human beings are social beings and need human interaction, so when we are asked to practice social distancing and to self-isolate at home, this can be challenging. A recent highlighted how the pandemic could have a profound impact on people’s mental health.
One of the paper’s authors Professor Rory O’Connor from the University of Glasgow said: “Increased social isolation, loneliness, health anxiety, stress, and an economic downturn are a perfect storm to harm people’s mental health and wellbeing.”
This highlights the impact on older people: “To be told that you are very vulnerable can be extremely frightening and very fear-inducing. The psychological impacts for these populations can include anxiety and feeling stressed or angry. And some older people may already be socially isolated and experiencing loneliness which can worsen mental health.”
Social prescribing link workers are supporting people by:
- Conducting welfare and follow-up review calls
- Facilitating medication delivery/pick up with pharmacists
- Facilitating community support via local COVID-19 response hubs, NHS volunteers and other community support
- Helping people navigate the menu of support that meets their needs
- Acting as the link for other support available to patients
- Supporting people to utilise digital platforms to stay connected
- Ensuring people have access to the right information, support and guidance to self-manage
COVID-19 has validated the role of social prescribing link workers and the need to mainstream social prescribing as a core part of the healthcare system. The importance of the social aspect of health is not new: indeed, the WHO defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
There is an urgent need to build patients’ and communities’ capabilities and resilience to take control of their mental and social wellbeing through link workers. Mainstreaming social prescribing across health and social care is an enabler. Doing so will also help reduce reliance on health services for non-medical issues.
Christiana Melam is the CEO of the National Association of Link Workers.