This year began with a political storm about the apparent overcrowding in accident and emergency departments across the country. As admissions rose over the winter, so did patient waiting times and the demand for beds.
But in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, the voluntary sector has been helping to alleviate some of the pressure on local A&E departments by running a project called the Social Prescribing Service.
Under the scheme, started in 2012, a dedicated team from Voluntary Action Rotherham, the local council for voluntary service, puts people with long-term health conditions in contact with local charities and community groups that can support them with medical and related non-medical problems. The aim is to help people manage their conditions better and reduce their reliance on NHS services such as GP surgeries and A&E departments.
Janet Wheatley, chief executive of VAR, says the decision to set up the Social Prescribing Service came after she met the chair of the Rotherham Clinical Commissioning Group, which organises NHS services locally. "We had a good relationship with the local health service, but we felt there was more of a role for community groups to play," she says. "It became clear that, in addition to prescribing drugs, health services were giving out a lot of tea and sympathy."
A pilot scheme, funded by the Rotherham CCG, began in September 2012 and now involves all 35 GP practices in the borough and 26 voluntary and community organisations, offering 31 services.
Barry Knowles, Social Prescribing Service manager at VAR, says a doctor or nurse completes a questionnaire about the patient's needs, then individual cases are discussed at a multi-agency meeting attended by one of VAR's five Social Prescribing Service advisers. An adviser then meets the patient to talk about the range of voluntary sector support available locally. Knowles says: "The advisers take a holistic approach to their care. We put them in contact with large charities such as Age UK and Crossroads Care, and refer them to local groups such as gardening clubs or charities that can help them manage their finances."
Knowles says the service tends to support people aged over 75, but it has assisted some people in their 20s and 30s who have long-term health conditions. VAR also awards funding directly to community groups to run projects such as arts and crafts sessions or holistic therapy sessions for Social Prescribing Service users.
A study by Sheffield Hallam University found that the service has been having the desired affect: A&E admissions among those referred to it have dropped by almost a quarter and hospital admissions among the group have fallen by a similar amount. The researchers estimate the service was responsible for savings of at least £415,000 in its first year.
Hazel Bacon, 77, is among those who have benefited from the service. Bacon suffered a stroke about 20 years ago that left her weak and struggling to walk. She also suffers from chest problems. The nurse at her local GP practice put her in contact with the Social Prescribing Service and she has since received a range of support, including help with getting new shower facilities installed. "I'd been in touch with social services the year before and it was a nightmare," she says. "The Social Prescribing Service adviser put me in touch with them again - a gentleman came out to see me and as a result I have a level-access shower."
She has also received support with claiming an independent living allowance and the art group she helps to run has received a £500 grant through the service to help cover its running costs. "The service helps psychologically," Bacon says. "These people have time to listen and can help identify things you need but didn't know about. A lot of people from my generation don't like to ask for help."