Our Director for Strategy Paul Buddery on volunteering and social prescribing

Social prescribing is a way for GPs and other clinical professionals to connect patients with non-medical help in their communities. Volunteering is its vital ingredient.  Many of the community resources to which patients are directed – groups, activities, clubs – are delivered and organised by volunteers. Many of those who provide the navigation and support needed to introduce patients to these groups are volunteers. And many of the activities that patients are being prescribed are themselves forms of volunteering – quite logically, because evidence tells us that volunteering tends to boost health and wellbeing.

So Volunteering Matters is delighted that social prescribing is a high priority for health services across the UK. Our submission to the Scottish Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee, which is holding an inquiry into the prescribing of physical activity and sport, is positive. We are travelling in the right direction: away from over-medicalised and reactive models of illness intervention, towards personalised and preventative forms of health support. But this is a journey from simplicity to complexity. It will require technological, institutional, financial and cultural shifts that won’t be quick, and are likely to be messy. It is an attempt to make a reality out of what is optimistically called ‘whole system working’, within which any number of organisations, professions, personalities, budgets, databases, geographic footprints, clinical pathways and service thresholds are convened into an organised – or sufficiently organised – mechanism.

Our LifeLines programme in Brighton shows how, over time, this ‘system’ can start to emerge, with volunteering adding essential points of brokerage, community connection and inter-personal support. Partnerships with Public Health, the Clinical Commissioning Group, supported housing providers and national and local charitable funders have made it possible to support the emotional and practical needs of older residents, including those with disabilities or long term health conditions. For volunteers and beneficiaries – often one and the same – lives improve. For hard pressed health and social care services, their expert professional support can be focussed where it makes most difference.

Volunteering Matters is committed to evolving health and wellbeing services that operate systematically and collaboratively. Greater investment in social prescribing will help build essential system architecture: there will be 1,000 new paid linkworkers in England’s NHS by 2021, and a new National Academy for Social Prescribing is coming soon. But it is important that governments also commit to the wider shifts in investment and culture that will bring whole system working to life.

More from LifeLines volunteer Darina