NHS England has announced the ‘rapid recruitment’ of up to 2,000 additional social prescribing link workers, health coaches and care coordinators among measures to alleviate GP pressures this winter.
NHS England last week announced a package of measures to ‘rapidly boost capacity and resilience’ in the NHS ahead of ‘additional pressure’ in winter.
It said that ‘GP services will be supported through the recruitment of extra social prescribing link workers and health and wellbeing coaches to support patients with other needs’.
A letter sent to integrated care boards (ICBs) last week set out a ‘core objective’ to ‘increase capacity outside acute trusts, including the scaling up of additional roles in primary care’ and said that NHS England will ‘maximise recruitment of new staff in primary care across the winter’.
An accompanying ICB improvement framework said there should be ‘rapid recruitment of up to 1,000 additional social prescribing link workers and health and wellbeing coaches’ and ‘1,000 additional care coordinators’ by November this year.
It added that these would ‘boost staff numbers’ working to step down patients ‘from high-intensity user services with non-medical needs where social and lifestyle issues are a significant risk factor’ and support certain high-risk patients within the ‘anticipatory care prioritised cohorts, with use of personal health budgets where appropriate’.
Figures from NHS Digital showed that as of December 2021, 1,108 care coordinators and 1,612 social prescribing link workers were in the full-time equivalent (FTE) PCN workforce.
The new documents also set out plans for local commissioners to:
- Work with PCNs and ‘other providers’ to set up ‘collaborative models to manage specific winter pressures’ such as ‘winter hubs’, although it remains unclear what level of involvement will be expected of GPs;
- ‘Rapidly prioritise practical interventions to improve patient experience of access and staff workload locally’ in GP practices by December;
- Put forward bids for GP premises and technology support by December; and
- Monitor pressures in primary care.
NHS England said ICBs must ‘resource a dedicated primary care team to actively engage and support general practices and community pharmacies with seasonal preparedness’ by December.
NHS national medical director Professor Sir Stephen Powis said: ‘Winter is always a busy period for the NHS, and this is the first winter where we are likely to see combined pressures from Covid and flu, so it is right that we prepare as early as we can for the additional demand that we know we will face.’
He added: ‘Ahead of the winter, we want to make sure we are doing everything we possibly can to free up capacity so that staff can ensure patients get the care they need.’
Meanwhile, NHS England also revealed that it will run a ‘GP access’ campaign in February 2023 to increase the number of ‘people using online access routes to contact their practice’.
And its letter suggested that ‘access to primary care’ is leading to pressures on emergency services.
It said: ‘A lack of capacity across the NHS has an impact on all areas of the system.
‘It is essential that ambulance and NHS 111 services have the necessary capacity in place and that access to primary care, community health services and mental health services for urgent patients is sufficient to ensure patients do not need to present to emergency services.’
BMA council chair Professor Philip Banfield: ‘It is encouraging that this plan promises to recruit more call centre staff and, in general practice, social prescribing link workers and health and wellbeing coaches, but that is just not enough.
‘We need more GPs and funding of staff to support them as primary care bears the brunt of hospital backlogs and patients that can’t access the care they need.’
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