Opportunity knocks?

Speaking on 19 June, the Secretary of State for Health, The Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, gave a speech designed to herald a new relationship between government and GPs. The speech itself, which was delivered at the Nelson Medical Practice in Merton, focused on the future of GP services in England.

As well as announcing 1,000 new physicians’ assistants, and reiterating a commitment to recruiting 5,000 more GPs, the Secretary of State also said social prescribing needed to be put on the same level as medical prescribing, in order to promote good health and to intervene early to prevent ill health.

“We need to empower general practice by breaking down the barriers with other sectors,” the Secretary of State stated, “whether social care, community care or mental health providers, so that social prescribing becomes as normal a part of your job as medical prescribing is today.”

While #socialprescribing trended briefly on Twitter, the speech itself failed to register on the #ukhousing streams, comments pages or lead articles of the social housing press.

Yet the speech presents real opportunities for housing providers.

First, it’s worth reflecting on two facts that stood out in the speech:

  • first, that around a fifth of GPs’time is spent dealing with their patients’ social problems, including debt, housing, social isolation and work;
  • secondly, 50% of GPs have no contact whatsoever with local social care providers.

How, then, can providers of care and support, as well as general needs social housing providers, work with primary care to identify what the latter needs from community services within the local neighbourhood? And how can they then deliver products that meet these needs?

There’s an opportunity here for housing providers to work with GPs to strengthen existing, or design new, models of social care. A number of housing associations are already testing out new approaches, but these will have to be measured effectively so they can eventually be prescribed.

At the same time, housing providers need to think about how they can become an indispensable part of delivering community triage – as some are already doing. To this end, they need to play to their strengths, championing their expertise in delivering housing advice, employment support and tenancy sustainability service.

They will also need to think about how they make an offer to GPs as part of their wider social care commitment to help manage GP workloads. It’s worth bearing in mind here that, in 2013, a national survey by the University of Manchester reported the highest levels of stress amongst GPs since the survey began in 1998, with the primary causes of stress being paperwork and increasing workloads.

The ideal scenario in the future will be that, when presented with a patient with a social problem, the overworked GP can pick up the phone and refer their patient on to a local organisation they trust, and which is trusted by local people. Initially, this might be for tried and tested prescriptions, like insulation or equipment that’s funded from other routes. As the relationship develops, these social prescriptions might then result in additional funding being available from the local clinical commissioning group.

To achieve this, though, housing providers will need to think about how they turn their existing skills and services into identifiable products. And, bearing in mind the mindset of GPs, these products will need to be measurable, with demonstrative benefits. They will also need to be easy to understand, easy to access and easy to prescribe, as well as, of course, helping a cash strapped NHS to save money.

It might sound like a huge challenge.

But consider this. In his speech, the Secretary of State highlighted how 90% of all contact with the NHS comes through GP consultations. In 2013, there were over 340 million GP consultations. If one five of these can be resolved through social prescribing, imagine how this might reshape the role that social housing can play with the health sector.

And, in turn, how health might just become one the social housing’s biggest allies in the future.