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PPI contributor, Bernard, reflects on the role of link workers, having been involved in one of our core Social Prescribing projects, seeking to better understand implementation of link workers in primary care.

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What is a Link Worker? Do they fill up the cash machines, make chains or write those annoying jingles between TV programmes? Well, none of those. You may have heard other names such as Community Navigators or Social Prescribers but they are the same thing. And who am I to write about Link Workers? My name is Bernard and I am known as a PPI (that’s Patient and Public Involvement) Contributor. I’m a patient and my role is to comment on the research from a patient’s perspective. I am not a researcher or medical professional, although I live with certain conditions and can promote the patient perspective. To do this I attend regular meetings with the project team and, poor them, they will tell you I’m not afraid to voice my opinions.

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Why are Link Workers being employed in primary care?

Many different things affect our wellbeing (it may be physical, social, economic or environmental) but it is estimated that 1 in 5 visits to a GP is for a non-medical issue (for example, loneliness, financial concerns, relationship problems) rather than a medical one. Our hard-pressed doctors can’t solve these issues with medication and they may not know what is available in the community. That’s why Link Workers are being employed.

Who and how do Link Workers help?

Link Workers focus on helping people with non-medical needs by connecting them to a variety of local services which support wellbeing and social welfare. These services may be provided by the council, a local charity or a volunteer organisation. A few examples:

  • People who suffer from loneliness or isolation can be referred to local groups where they can meet new people.
  • People who want to lose weight can be referred to low cost and accessible places to keep fit and learn about healthy eating.
  • People with arthritis can be referred to their nearest arthritis support hub.
  • People who are going through stress or anxiety can be referred to centres focusing on mindfulness, mediation and relaxation.

Link Workers may or may not be medically trained but what they definitely are is an expert on what sort of support and lifestyle changes help people improve their lives. They also know what’s available in the community for people to live healthier and happier lives. This could be exercise classes, support groups, places to get advice or charities.

So is this a new fad? 

Although social prescribing has been in some parts of the country for several years, more recently there has been support, at a national level, from the NHS – you can find a lot more here. There is also now a National Association of Link Workers - see details here.

This study, which is funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) - (NIHR130247), is designed to understand what Link Workers actually do and what is most helpful in the community. But surely that’s all known about? Well, no it isn’t; in different places Link Workers and their roles are interpreted differently. Is this a good or bad thing?  That’s one of the questions this project aims to answer. It may be that different GP practices need Link Workers with different skills and we have seen a whole spectrum from trained counselling through to advising on art and gardening groups. What we can be certain of is that there is a role for Link Workers and, by the end of the project, we hope to know more about what approaches are most useful in the community and why.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.