By William Lilley, a Programme Director at the South West AHSN is leading our COVID-19 work addressing health inequalities.
Health Connections Mendip in Frome, Somerset, is probably one of the most well-known social prescribing projects in the UK, and internationally. Since 2015 their team of health connectors has been working with people to identify the changes they want to make in their lives. Over a thousand community connectors then link people into the support that is right for them.
The initiative was spearheaded by one of the GP partners at Frome Medical Practice, Dr Helen Kingston, who had been looking at ways to deliver a more person-centred approach to health and care for some time. This was because the health implications of social isolation and loneliness were increasingly apparent across the 30,000 population the surgery serves. The initiative is now supported by our Institute for Social Prescribing.
At the South West Academic Health Science Network we have been capturing insights from local social prescribing sites, including Ilfracombe, St Austell, and now Frome, during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic from March to June 2020. Whilst there has been differences in local contexts and approaches between these sites, it has been interesting to see where commonalities lie in terms of working collaboratively across systems and with communities.
Supporting the community response
In Frome, where the relationships between primary care and the community are broad and deep, the social prescribing infrastructure was used to support the local community-led response. This included updating the Health Connections Mendip directory of services to include new community support that sprung up almost overnight in response to COVID-19. Health Connections Mendip also linked groups across the community to ensure support was joined-up as well as coordinated well-being check-in calls to people identified as vulnerable in addition to their usual caseload.
For Mike, a patient at Frome Medical Practice with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Health Connections Mendip’s partnership approach makes a big difference. “I feel we work as a team with Health Connections [Mendip]. They are always there whenever we have questions or need that extra support in finding more information.”
Developing virtual support to sit alongside face-to-face
In Frome, while life expectancy is above the national average, there are health inequalities and pockets of deprivation. Parts of Frome are considered amongst the 20% most deprived areas in England.
People in the area are also considered to be at increased risk of social isolation and loneliness. For this reason, ensuring maximum accessibility to new online support became a priority. A number of groups and training sessions were moved online, as well as new ones developed, to ensure that the community could easily access support digitally. This included the training of new digital community connectors and the set-up of an online Parents’ Talking Café.
Going forward, while the team hope to bring back their face-to-face work and group activity as soon as possible, they are beginning to see that some of the virtual support and digital solutions put in place may have a longer-term role. They now have a team of 50 Digital Connectors to help with this.
Recognising that a virtual approach may not be ideal for everyone or every situation, the team are trying to understand where the loss of face-to-face and group activity makes a big difference and where virtual support is just as good, or even better - with a view to prioritising bringing back face-to-face support for the individuals and issues that benefit from it most.
By having confidence in the community’s ability to lead the response locally, Health Connections Mendip has been able to focus its time on building practical tools and providing capacity to support the community where gaps are identified. The confidence in the community comes from years of investment in relationship building. The experience in Frome has shown us how important this investment is for building resilience over the longer term, whatever situation we find ourselves in over winter.
You can read the full experience of Frome’s social prescribing team during COVID-19 by downloading our case study. Our thanks to Jenny Hartnoll, Head of Social Prescribing at Health Connections Mendip and colleagues, for sharing their learning at this point.
For more about social prescribing and other case materials and highlights visit: Institute for Social Prescribing.