Blog post

Harnessing social prescribing to support integrated care

A look at the role of social prescribing in integrated care and supporting elective care.
Nicola Gitsham

17 February 2022

Ahead of Social Prescribing Week from 4 to 11 March, Nicola Gitsham reflects on what has been achieved since social prescribing was included in the NHS Long Term Plan and what opportunities lie ahead to accelerate its potential.

Social prescribing is an approach that connects people to activities, groups and services in their community to meet practical, social and emotional needs that affect their health and wellbeing. This includes nature-based activities, physical activity, arts and culture, and advice and support services such as housing or debt.

Social prescribing link workers play a key role in delivering social prescribing. They build relationships with patients around what matters to them, empowering them to develop knowledge, skills and confidence to manage their health and wellbeing. They work with partners to develop accessible and sustainable community activities in response to what the local population needs.

The NHS Long Term Plan identified personalised care as one of the five major changes to the NHS delivery model, with the ambition of over 2.5 million people benefitting from personalised care by 2023/24, including social prescribing. As of September 2021, there are 1,600 additional social prescribing link workers in place in primary care networks (PCNs).

With up to one in five GP appointment about wider social needs rather than medical issues, social prescribing can play an important role in integrated care, supporting people waiting for elective care, reducing overprescribing and tackling loneliness and I am proud to be part of this movement.

There are two major opportunities to develop this work further:

Building the workforce

During the coronavirus pandemic, link workers played a key role in supporting community responses, particularly around reducing isolation, supporting vulnerable people, and tackling resulting physical and mental health challenges.

As we restore services and respond to the new health challenges COVID-19 has brought, we need social prescribing more than ever. The good news is that we have a strong foundation to build on, with passionate link workers, PCNs and voluntary sector colleagues showing us the way.

Social prescribing looks at a person’s whole life through a trusted relationship between person and link worker

Our annual survey of link workers shows the impact they have on the people they work with, and they want career development and full integration into primary care teams to have maximum impact. PCNs also want more support to make the most of link worker roles. We believe a workforce that is supported and developed will make the most difference to individuals and communities. 

We are working with partners including primary care, Health Education England and the voluntary sector to create a link worker development framework. A comprehensive support offer is in place to support link workers, PCNs and integrated care systems (ICSs), including regional advisers who support systems.

Whole-system approach

The NHS cannot address all the factors that affect people’s health. Social prescribing looks at a person’s whole life through a trusted relationship between person and link worker. Similarly, we need to take a partnership approach to building the social prescribing ecosystem with local partners. ICSs present an opportunity to deliver this integrated approach to social prescribing, including leadership at place and building a thriving community sector.

We have seen increasing cross-government interest in social prescribing as a route to tackle inequalities. I was lucky enough to visit  the Green Social Prescribing Programme in Nottingham (Greenspace project). It was exciting to hear how St Ann’s Allotment is helping people improve their mental health. It was also encouraging to see a wide range of partners across health, local authorities, employment and the voluntary sector discussing how they could develop their strategies for social prescribing and sustainable investment in green space and nature-based activities to tackle health inequalities. This is just one example of cross-government working.

Social prescribing cannot achieve its potential without a thriving voluntary sector. In the most innovative ICSs, we are seeing strong voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) alliances, shared investment funds and collaborative approaches to building the social prescribing workforce and developing a sustainable programme of VCSE activities.

Social Prescribing Week

Social Prescribing Week from 4 to 11 March 2022 is a chance to celebrate, share good practice and be inspired.

If you are an ICS leader wanting to build an innovative, strong coalition to tackle local health inequalities, take your own next steps right now to build and develop the amazing social prescribing workforce that can respond to the needs of individuals and communities. Social Prescribing Week is an opportunity to do that, and please do share your good work with others across the country through #SocialPrescribingWeek and #mySPpledge.

Nicola Gitsham is head of social prescribing at NHS England and NHS Improvement. You can follow Nicola on Twitter @nicolagitsham