Last week saw my official first day as Head of Social Prescribing at NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSE). I’ve been informally leading the work since Christmas, but I was looking forward to a gentle proper start, travelling the country and finding out what was working and how we could improve our social prescribing offer at NHSE. However, COVID-19 had other ideas and I have been confronted with the most basic question: “Is social prescribing still relevant at a time of social distancing?”
Here’s my response from listening to link workers, staff in general practice, local authorities, voluntary sector partners and local communities:
- Social prescribing is needed more now than ever. Social prescribing link workers are naturally coordinating local community support, working with vulnerable people who are self-isolating. They are organising both practical and emotional help and finding innovative solutions to enable people to stay virtually connected.
- Social prescribing supports people to live their best lives by connecting people and finding creative ways to meet need. It enables people to be part of the solution, not the problem, to volunteer and to give back to others. We’ve seen from the NHS Volunteer Scheme response that people really want to help. Social prescribing link workers act as the glue that connects people, agencies, volunteers and brings that support together.
- We are hard-wired to connect. Our need for connections and our need to reach out to people is fundamental. Through social prescribing those most at risk of loneliness and with poor life chances can be supported to get involved and have more control over their lives.
- Whilst social prescribing is not new, it is relatively new to the NHS and it will take time to embed because it changes culture. Social prescribing link workers are already acting as ‘super connectors’ in primary care multi-disciplinary teams. But for all the good stories we also hear that some link workers feel isolated and unsupported, they may also lack the tools to work remotely and may not get the supervision they need from their Primary Care Networks.
At NHSE, we have been busy adapting our social prescribing support offer so that it is relevant and practical as part of the COVID-19 response:
- We have provided guidance to Primary Care Networks (PCNs) on the role of social prescribing link worker in relation to COVID-19, asking link workers to contact vulnerable people and connect them with the right support.
- Our regional social prescribing facilitators are already helping PCNs to rapidly recruit additional social prescribing link workers to meet the demands of COVID-19. We will support every PCN that wants additional link workers to bring them in quickly.
- We’ve created an area on our social prescribing collaborative platform dedicated to discussions about responding to COVID-19. To sign up to this online network, email [email protected].
- We’ve set up weekly webinars to support link workers throughout the COVID-19 response. We had to close registrations for our first session at 700 social prescribing link workers. See the social prescribing collaborative platform for more information.
- Our regional learning coordinators are facilitating virtual peer support for link workers across every Integrated Care System in England, enabling link workers to support each other and share good practice.
- We’ve provided national guidance and the Social Prescribing Welcome Pack for new link workers.
I’m finding that my previous experiences leading the national demonstrator programme for NHSE’s Personalised Care programme and, before that as an occupational therapist, have given me a helpful start. I’m also aware that I am standing on the shoulders of giants who have built a vibrant social prescribing movement across the country.Now is a key time in our history to come together and, in the words of Roosevelt, ‘do what we can, with what we have, where we are’. We need to come together across statutory, voluntary sector partners and communities to support people to stay safe, connected and have the best life they can in difficult circumstances. We also need to come together as a social prescribing community to share what we are learning now that will shape the future of social prescribing.
As Head of the Social Prescribing Team at NHSE, I am committed to ensuring we learn from link workers and people receiving social prescribing to help social prescribing become stronger, more widespread, and ever more effective. We are excited about the role the National Academy of Social Prescribing will play in the next year, gathering learning, convening conversations with its partners and helping to make a noise about what works. We are looking forward to working together and wish NASP every success!
Nicola Gitsham is Head of Social Prescribing for NHS England