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Social prescribing workers to ease GP pressure

Link workers will help patients to become fitter and healthier and improve their mental health

Louise Prime

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

A thousand social prescribing ‘link workers’ will ease pressure on GPs as well as helping patients to become fitter and healthier and improve their mental health, NHS England has announced. GP leaders agreed that the “incredibly welcome” plans should bring great benefits for patients and GPs.

NHS England pointed out that about half of GP appointments are not directly related to medical conditions, and that there is “growing evidence that referrals to community services such as exercise or art classes, history groups and even ballroom dancing can boost health and wellbeing more than dishing out pills or other treatments”. So, under plans due for approval by its Board later this week, and as part of the NHS Long-Term Plan, it will recruit “an army of advisers to help patients live fitter, healthier lives and combat anxiety, loneliness and depression”.

It said the 1,000 social prescribing link workers will allow patients time to talk about what matters to them, and will support them in finding suitable activities that are a better alternative to medication. The plans are part of a step change in Universal Personalised Care, which NHS England said “will also free up GPs to deal with patients who really need them”.

Longer-term, it expects that each of the roughly 1,400 primary care networks covering the country will have access to a social prescriber link worker (their salaries fully funded by NHS England); and that by 2023-24, social prescribers will be handling about 900,000 patient appointments a year.

NHS England’s director of personalised care James Sanderson said: “A further 2.5 million people will benefit from personalised care by 2024. A one-size-fits-all health and care system simply cannot meet the increasing complexity of people’s needs and expectations.”

He pointed out: “There is emerging evidence that it [social prescribing] can lead to a range of positive health and wellbeing outcomes for people, such as improved quality of life and emotional wellbeing. The aim is that social prescribing schemes lead to a substantial reduction in the use of NHS services, including GP attendances.”

Chair of the Royal College of GPs, professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, commented: “Often the underlying reason a patient visits their GP is not medical, yet it can have a considerable impact on their health and wellbeing. Ensuring that GPs and our teams have good, easy access to people who can link patients with classes or groups in the community and other non-NHS services, that could potentially be of far more benefit than any medicine, is something the College has long called for, so the focus on this is incredibly welcome.”

The British Medical Association (BMA) also welcomed NHS England’s recognition of the impact of people’s social and domestic circumstances on their physical and mental wellbeing, and of the fact that GPs’ patients often have complex underlying reasons for consulting. BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: “Good access to professionals who can link patients to local services and activities – such as community support groups and classes – can be of great benefit to patients, actively involving them in their own care and improving their longer-term wellbeing. This should also allow GPs to focus their time and expertise on treating people’s more immediate or acute health needs.

“GPs and their teams are under a huge amount of pressure to deliver high quality care to a rising population with increasingly complex needs, and therefore it is vital, now more than ever, that patients are able to see the right healthcare or support professional for them within a reasonable timeframe. The BMA has long-backed social prescribers supporting the general practice team, and this commitment to roll them out across the country is very welcome.”

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