Pandemic could shatter social prescribing as one in three link workers plan to quit

GPs have demanded more resources to support social prescribers after a poll found almost a third could quit over a lack of support that has deepened in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social prescribers support the most vulnerable patients (Photo: sturti/Getty Images)
Social prescribers support the most vulnerable patients (Photo: sturti/Getty Images)

A survey of 279 social prescribers by the National Association of Link Workers found that 29% were considering leaving their role within the next year due to a lack of clinical supervision and professional support.

Some 61% of respondents said that they had no clinical supervision, while 21% had no peer or professional supervision at all. The association's report Care for the Carer said that both were 'essential requirements for the role', highlighting that social prescribers were often dealing with very complex cases that were emotionally demanding.

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said it was 'vital' that practices and PCNs had the resources they needed to provide this support.

Social prescribing

'Social prescribing is essential in helping us care for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, as well as freeing up GP time to see more urgent cases,' Dr Vautrey said.

'It’s vital that [social prescribers] are provided with the training and support they need, but also that PCNs and practices are provided with the resources needed to provide appropriate clinical supervision.

'Without this, we risk returning to a general practice where patients wait longer for the care they need, and GPs are flooded with cases that could be dealt with away from the consulting room - things that, particularly as we learn and move on from COVID-19, we can’t afford to let happen.'

The findings come as the RCGP highlighted the important role that social prescribing link workers had played during the coronavirus pandemic and how this could be built on in future. The college's report General practice in a post-COVID world, which was published this week, said that social prescribers had 'often been at the heart of local support for vulnerable patients'.

Health inequalities

It said that their work had demonstrated the 'role that primary care can play in building community resilience and tackling health inequalities'.

The National Association of Link Workers also pointed out that social prescribers would have a key role to play in helping the NHS deal with the long-term consequences of the pandemic. It said that many link workers' clients were already 'teetering on the edge' before the pandemic and the challenges of social isolation, poverty, mental health issues, domestic violence and the pressure of home schooling 'had made their lives even harder'.

However, it said that the COVID-19 pandemic, which had seen many social prescribing link workers having to adapt to new ways of working and work remotely, had also led to an even greater sense of isolation for those who felt unsupported. The association said that this needed to be addressed if the NHS was to gain the full benefits of social prescribing.

'Having support in place enables link workers to work better, feel less isolated, improve their own mental health and ultimately help them provide a better service that will allow their clients to be more independent and need less support from the NHS or others as a result,' the report said.

Clinical supervision

The organisation is calling for employers, including practices and PCNs, to be provided with access to training, guidance, support and resources, which should set out how to implement a quality social prescribing service and provide advice on clinical supervision.

Jane Soothill a social prescribing link worker and a board member of the National Association of Link workers said: 'Link workers support some of our most vulnerable and complex citizens. They often do this with minimal support, supervision, or direction. If this new workforce is to be sustainable, every effort must be made to put in place structures that encourage link workers to feel confident and valued.

'The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the key role link workers play in helping people with loneliness and social isolation. Given the post-COVID challenge that lies ahead, it is more important than ever that the loneliness and isolation felt by many link workers are acknowledged and addressed as soon as possible.'

Ruth Rankine, director of the NHS Confederation’s PCN Network, said: 'The role of social prescribing has been proven to be invaluable to PCNs and their patients, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is the time to really embed social prescribing into primary care as part of the wider offer to patients. That means ensuring they get the right level of support and supervision to succeed, both personally and professionally; and that clinical directors and managers are given sufficient time to provide it.'

Book your place at Medeconomics Live

Our sister site Medeconomics is running a virtual event, Medeconomics Live, on 23 October. It will include a session on social prescribing, along with other practical advice to help your practice thrive under the new GP contract while also tackling COVID-19. Book your place here.

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