Real world encounters with social prescribing: Reflections from fieldwork on a study to understand the link worker role
24 February 2022
In this blog, Amadea Turk reflects on her experiences of starting data collection for a study exploring the role of link workers in primary care. As part of this research, Amadea is spending time with link workers in different parts of England to understand how they work in practice.
The opportunity to undertake fieldwork
I have worked in the area of social prescribing for a couple of years now. This has mainly involved working on reviews of the literature and meeting with key stakeholders and colleagues to plan research projects. And while I had a pretty good understanding of the theory and policy around social prescribing, I didn’t know very much about how it worked and what it looked like in practice in real life settings. It was, therefore, with much anticipation and excitement, that I set about starting fieldwork for this study on the link worker role.
I was quite fortunate that the GP practice where I started fieldwork was only a short train journey away. It meant that the local area was relatively familiar and that it was easy to understand what living there was like.
Preparing for fieldwork
Before embarking on fieldwork, our research team met with the link worker and a GP based at the practice. During this meeting, the link worker explained a little bit about how she worked and what working at the practice was like. This meeting was essential in helping me plan the structure of my visits so that these could run as smoothly as possible.
Entering the field
On my first day at the practice, the link worker met me by the reception desk and took time to explain to me how she worked, how many patients she would be seeing and what her day would look like. We had a discussion about how we could work best together and about the ways in which we could minimise the disruption my presence might cause during her consultations with patients.
The link worker and the practice staff were incredibly helpful and made sure that I felt part of the practice, welcoming me to their coffee breaks and lunches. The informal conversations over coffee and lunch gave me some really important insights into how social prescribing was being adopted and implemented locally.
Insights from the fieldwork
The medical team had invested a lot of time and thought into designing and adapting the service to suit the practice and the needs of patients in their area. At this practice, the social prescribing service is very much geared towards supporting people with mental health concerns. This is particularly necessary in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic where the number of people seeking help for mental health has seemed to increase. The link worker only covered this one practice, and it was felt that this was key in ensuring that she became and felt part of the practice team. It was clear that the practice staff valued having the social prescribing service as it helped to reassure them that patients would receive support outside the limits of a short GP consultation.
Conducting fieldwork provided me with the valuable experience of being able to see, first-hand, how all the people involved in a social prescribing service work together. I am incredibly grateful to the link worker and all the patients who allowed me to sit in and observe their consultations. It gave me a wonderful insight into how social prescribing is working in real life settings.
This study is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) [HS&DR] (IHR130247). The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care or their host institution.
What to read next
Understanding the implementation of link workers in primary care: A realist evaluation to inform current and future policy
8 November 2021
A new study, led by CEBM members, Dr Stephanie Tierney and Associate Professor Kamal Mahtani, aims to understand the link worker role in primary care as part of social prescribing (in particular, to identify what works, for whom, why and in what circumstances). In this blog, the team shares details about this research, which has been funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR).
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Researcher, Debra Westlake, reflects on the first stages of data collection from latest social prescribing study; exploring and comparing the roles of links workers at various GP surgeries throughout the UK, in sustaining outcomes in primary care.