Somerset County Council: using social prescribing to promote self care

The council and local NHS have identified social prescribing as a key priority in terms of encouraging self care. They are working with the Richmond Group of Charities and local partners to spread social prescribing equitably and sustainably across the county. This forms part of our resource on self care.

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The challenge

In Somerset about 175,000 people – just under a third of the population – have a longterm health condition. These are conditions for which there is no cure. Medical support can help, but these patients also have social, emotional and practical needs.

These problems cannot always be addressed within the GP surgery. Instead, they require people to be connected to local community services and activities to tackle problems such as isolation and promote good wellbeing.

This in turn requires local communities, voluntary groups, professionals, NHS managers and council officers to work together, as partners of people themselves. In doing so, patients can be empowered and engaged in their own self care.

The solution

Over recent years, a number of areas in Somerset have set up their own social prescribing schemes that link people to peer support groups, community groups and social networks where they live.

For example, in the town of Frome, a project was created by a GP surgery in 2013. Known as the Compassionate Frome Project, it has health connectors who act as a bridge between the patient’s medical and social needs and community connectors to link patients with support including help with house and debt problems as well as choirs, exercise classes and lunch clubs.

GPs have access to a directory of support, but the community connectors are also on hand to provide one-to-one help and home visits to work with patients and get them involved in activities.

In other parts of Somerset there are some slightly different models. For example, South Somerset’s Symphony Project has 50 health coaches who provide a social prescribing function and in West Somerset village agents are working with the Living Better Programme. Meanwhile, the council’s adult social care team has developed a ‘community connect’ approach to enable its social workers to link people directly with micro-providers in rural areas.

The impact

People with all sorts of conditions and circumstances, from chronic pain to mental illness, have been helped through these schemes to improve their lives.

Those who have been involved are full of praise. One patient in Frome said: “The doctor said this would probably help more than tablets – I think it has.” Another praised the approach. “It think it’s a progressive way of bringing health to the community. It’s very positive.”

Academic analysis also suggests these approaches are effective. This, along with it being the “right thing to do”, convinced the council, local CCGs and acute NHS trusts

Lessons learned

Several pieces of research were undertaken in the first six months of 2018. They included in-depth work with 100 residents and 100 GPs. This showed there was a real appetite for more social prescribing.

Dr Will Harris, the CCG’s Primary Care Lead, said: “Although family doctors support people with their day-to-day health needs, good health and wellbeing is not just about the absence of illness. GPs want to work with the voluntary sector and communities to address the social, emotional or practical needs in people’s lives and social prescribing has been shown to offer a practical and effective way to addressing loneliness, to improving diet and physical activity.”

The research also concluded that there was not a single model that should be developed county-wide across Somerset. Each area has different infrastructure, assets and relationships upon which to build.

Richmond Group National Programme Manager Chloë Reeves said: “We initially looked at spreading social prescribing through an outcomes-based contract, but the research suggested this ‘blanket’approach might work well in some parts of the county but less well in others.

“Something more akin to a ‘quilt’ – knitting together what works well in each part of the county – makes more sense. Every district is different, so why try to pursue a single way of developing and implementing social prescribing?”

How is the approach being sustained?

The partners are now working toward spreading social prescribing schemes in 2019.

A follow-up mapping exercise across the county showed that three of the 10 districts were starting from a lower level in terms of community assets, infrastructure and collaborative working, which would impact their ability to support successful social prescribing.

It is recognised that in some areas – particularly these three – there will need to be investment, perhaps in the form of new or extended roles, dedicated to building capacity among the voluntary and community sector.

There is also likely to be a need for some seed funding to get new groups off the ground, as well as funded link worker to work with individuals and act as a bridge between their social and health needs.

Councillor Christine Lawrence, Chair of the Health and Wellbeing Board, said this should help embed social prescribing across the county. “It marks an important next step in the shared commitment in Somerset to work together to build community resilience and improve the wellbeing of our population across the statutory, voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors.”

Contact details

Chloë Reeves

National Programme Manager Richmond Group 

[email protected]