A social prescribing link worker’s perspective

Case study summary

Social prescribing is a part of the universal personalised care model being rolled out as part of the NHS long term plan, replacing a one-size-fits all approach with care based on the understanding that health is more than just physical. Helena Ali is a social prescribing link worker (SPLW), who has worked with a large number of individuals to help them realise their goals, overcome barriers and access specialist local services to improve their quality of life. She offers insights and advice for those considering work in this area, highlighting the many benefits that social prescribing has to offer.

Social prescribing is a key component of  Universal Personalised Care, which is being rolled out as part of the NHS Long Term Plan. It replaces the one-size-fits all approach with care that is tailored to people’s own mental and physical needs, and recognises that health is not just physical but emotional and social too. Social prescribing enables local GPs and other local agencies to refer people to link workers, who operate at the heart of primary care.  They provide specialist support to individuals who need more than just medical care to help them live healthier, more fulfilling lives. By spending time with a person, they help to unpick the things that may be holding them back and help them identify and connect up with organisations and activities in their community.

Social prescribing is suitable for a wide range of people, including people with one or more long-term condition, those who need support with their mental health, those who are lonely or isolated, or those who have complex social needs which affect their wellbeing.

The NHS is committed to having  over 1,000 trained social prescribing link workers (SPLWs) in primary care networks across England by 2020/21, and continuing to increase that number so that by 2023/24  over 900,00 people will have been referred to a link worker.

Helena AliHelena’s story

Based in the inner west of Newcastle Upon Tyne  in a GP surgery, Helena Ali is one of those SPLWs. She describes Social Prescribing as “a focus on what matters to the person, helping them to identify the barriers (how they can get there) and overcoming those together”.  She has found that many of her colleagues were not aware of social prescribing, nor what it could achieve, but because she is in a primary care setting and is “showing my face at all the meetings” she now has a good relationship with her colleagues and is constantly receiving referrals from GPs.

Before working as a SPLW, Helena was a Public Health Specialist at the former local clinical commissioning group (CCG – CCGs were replaced by integrated care systems on the 1st July 2022). Her role there was to look at what issues affected the accessibility of local services and ensure that diverse local populations were being adequately supported.  This gave her a good knowledge of local services that she believes is  essential when starting out as a SPLW  –  alongside being non-judgmental and having “a good sense of humour”.

“To be a good SPLW you need to do your research, find out what is going on in your area—you really do need to know all the mapping services”.

One of the key responsibilities of SPLWs is to connect individuals with local support from community groups and advice services, helping them to achieve their goals, be it joining the gym or gaining academic qualifications – “You need to be a good networker and know how to link in with other colleagues successfully so that all the support is joined up” advises Helena.

However, the focus isn’t just on the final outcome. Helena describes the process of building one-to-one relationships as a “journey” in which skills and trust are developed incrementally, particularly when working with people who are coping with multiple issues: “I had someone with anxiety and health problems and for them the experience was to help them on their way to going to college and getting some qualifications. It took a good year to build the trust with them, and that was done by constantly listening and having empathy and not just looking at what their issues were but looking at the bigger picture and what might be causing those anxieties”.

Having supported 120 individual service users over a six-month period, Helena, who is part-time, describes her work as “constantly busy” but “really fulfilling”. As Social Prescribing is further integrated into the current health care system, these figures highlight the capacity for SPLWs to relieve some of the pressures faced by GPs. As Helena says; “Working alongside GPs, we can support them to support their patients. Time is in short supply for GPs, but link workers are able to spend time getting alongside people who struggle to manage their own healthcare, supporting them to tackle their social issues and become independent.”

For Helena, Social Prescribing offers an exciting vision for the future based on a “360 approach” to health: “If your housing and bills are all paid then you are likely to be happier than if you need to deal with that on top of health concerns. That’s where social prescribing can really help”.