The NHS is recruiting a growing army of social prescribing link workers to combat loneliness and isolation fuelled by coronavirus.
More than 1,200 are already helping people to improve their mental health and get more exercise by taking part in activities from gardening to ballroom dancing.
And now the NHS is fast-tracking recruitment of an additional 500, who will work with family doctors and the growing number of clinical staff working in primary care to provide personalised support to 125,000 more people per year.
One in five people who visit a GP surgery do not have a medical problem but can benefit from meeting others or a healthier lifestyle.
Social prescribing link workers, introduced to the NHS last year, spend time with patients to understand the reasons for them seeking help, and support them to get involved with activities such as sports teams, cooking classes or social clubs, or taking up life skill courses to improve their wellbeing.
As part of its Long Term Plan, the NHS was committed to employing 1,000 social prescribers by March 2021, with that target already surpassed.
Now, with the coronavirus pandemic compounding loneliness, isolation and mental health problems for many people, the NHS is providing extra funding to groups of GPs to allow them to go further, so that more than 400,000 people a year can benefit from the additional support that link workers can provide to local communities.
Nikki Kanani, London GP and NHS medical director for primary care, said: “Link workers have been front and centre of the NHS’ response to COVID-19, helping some of our most vulnerable people with everything from accessing vital medicine to relieving loneliness during the lockdown.
“And as the NHS continues to support Covid patients while offering its usual world class care, link workers will remain vital, helping to improve people’s quality of life and emotional wellbeing and keeping them healthy.”
Social prescribers are just one way that the NHS is strengthening primary care, with more people also training to be a GP than ever before.
In all, 26,000 additional staff who are being recruited to roles supporting networks of family doctors over the coming years, meaning that people can access a wider range of care and treatment closer to home.
They join, among others, advanced paramedics, mental health therapists, clinical pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, dietitians, podiatrists and occupational therapists – paid for by significant the additional investment in primary and community care promised in the NHS Long Term Plan.
During the last year the NHS has worked hard to support its new link workers, many of whom have had to hit the ground running when they took up post just as the pandemic hit.
With lockdown stopping most social activities, many social prescribers have had to adapt their approach, working closely with local groups and volunteers to coordinate support for vulnerable patients, such as check-in and chats, food parcels and medicine deliveries.
James Sanderson, Director of NHS Personalised Care said: “There is no one size fits all approach to a person’s health which is why the NHS will support 2.5 million people with long term conditions by 2024 to be actively involved in their own care and improve their long-term wellbeing.
“By putting people in contact with services and activities that matter to them, from cooking classes to walking football, they will not only be able to develop new skills, but will also be able to improve their health and wellbeing.”
Widening access to social prescribing support is part of the Government’s Loneliness Strategy of 2018, and in October 2019 the Department for Health and Social Care established the National Academy for Social Prescribing to help inform how local teams can best support those who need their help.
Chair of the National Academy for Social Prescribing, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, said: “Link workers are an excellent new addition to the primary care team and are already having a great impact in helping people live their best lives. The academy is building the resources needed to enable social prescribing to thrive and the additional support for PCNs from NHS England is therefore warmly welcomed.”