How social prescribing can help practices during the COVID-19 outbreak

Christiana Melam explains how recruiting social prescribing link workers could help PCNs and practices manage increased demand for wellbeing support from patients during the pandemic.

Christiana Melam, chief executive, National Association of Social Prescribing Link Workers
Christiana Melam, chief executive, National Association of Social Prescribing Link Workers

There is an urgent need to recruit social prescribing link workers to help primary care networks (PCNs), and GP practices manage COVID-19 workload pressures.

PCNs can use funding from the Additional Roles Reimbursement Scheme to recruit social prescribing link workers in order to increase the capacity of existing link workers

Social prescribers are a fantastic resource that enable GP practices to provide holistic care to their patients. Here is what some GPs are saying about link workers:

  • 'The social prescribing link worker is able to take on the job of coordinating the support that a complex patient needs, and make sure that it’s working – which has value for us in terms of that person then using the practice less, and more appropriately.'
  • 'It’s a fabulous role for helping our patients to navigate other systems.'
  • 'Before the social prescribing link worker I was pulling my hair out dealing with the sad lives of others.'
  • 'I now feel like I can offer something to some of my patients – these were often cases where I’ve really not known what to do for the best.'

COVID-19 workload pressures

During the pandemic GPs can make use of social prescribing link workers to support their patients to build resilience and take control of their health and wellbeing – both during this crisis and in the future.

Practices may find that they are facing rising workload pressure due to increased demand for social wellbeing support from patients as a result of the pandemic.

A recent paper in the Lancet Psychiatry 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.'

Meanwhile the World Health Organization (WHO) is monitoring the impact of the pandemic on mental health. It points out that older people and those with underlying health conditions are particularly at-risk of suffering from mental health issues.

A WHO briefing highlights: '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.'

Some link workers are already experiencing increased demand as a result of COVID-19. Some of our members have told us the following:

  • 'It's a matter of urgency [to recruit more workers] if I'm honest as a lot of us could get burnt out very quickly.’
  • 'I am working flat out, between making brief wellbeing calls off the lists (we have seen a sudden increase in social prescribing referrals as people start to struggle in lockdown) and worry about integration afterwards.’
  • ‘Nurses who can't see patients are being redeployed to us to help us.’

How social prescribing can help

Social prescribing link workers are continuing to manage existing social prescribing caseloads as well as supporting patients from the practice who are shielding and other vulnerable patients, by:

  • Conducting welfare telephone and/or video calls.
  • Facilitating medication delivery/pick up with pharmacists.
  • Facilitating community support for patients via local COVID-19 response hub, NHS volunteers and other community support.
  • Helping patients to navigate the menu of support that meets their needs.
  • Acting as the link for NHS Volunteers and other support available to patients.
  • Giving people hope and a new mindset to see new possibilities.
  • Supporting patients to use digital platforms to stay connected.

Those practices who had no link workers employed prior to the COVID-19 outbreak are having to use other practice staff to undertake this work. This gap in provision can be filled through social prescribers who could be recruited with the new DES funding that has become available this financial year.

Recruiting social prescribing link workers

Annex B of a GP preparedness letter from NHS England at the end of March highlights how PCNs can redeploy social prescribing link workers to support the COVID-19 response. The steps NHS England recommends that PCNs take could take to increase the number of social prescribing link workers are:

  • draw down on the additional roles reimbursement Scheme to recruit a team (for example, four) of social prescribing link workers
  • work in partnership with voluntary and social enterprise organisations to recruit and deploy social prescribing link workers (or an equivalent named person co-ordinating care)

Primary Care Networks that need support recruiting or supporting their link workers can also contact the National Association Association of Link Workers here.

  • Christiana Melam is chief executive, National Association of Link Workers

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