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Why the NHS needs social workers on board

Posted on 18/12/2015 by


Why the NHS needs social workers on board

As chief social worker for adults in England, I meet many social workers and see at first hand the positive difference their practice makes to improving people’s lives. At their best, skilled social workers are magicians at finding efficiencies and creating community-based solutions to meet need, working alongside individuals and their carers to explore what matters to people, what kind of lives they want to lead and what’s possible and available from the people themselves, their social and neighbourhood networks and universal services that are available to all.

Effective practice-led approaches are reducing reliance on formally funded adult social care services. Examples include the not-for-profit People2People social work practice in Shropshire, the “community offer” team at Barnet council, north London, and Calderdale council’s community social work practice in West Yorkshire.

Barnet’s award winning approach made over £500,000 savings in its first year, by finding cost-effective alternatives to mainstream care. The Calderdale service builds on the model piloted by the council over the past year, in which a team of 12 social workers focused on finding community options – including adapting homes and telecare, as well as family and some local support – that do not rely on traditional service responses such as home or day care. Of the 1,350 people they worked with, 97% were found options that did not require longer-term involvement by social services.

These social work skills are something that local authorities and the NHS will need to recognise and support if adult social care is to rise to the challenges it faces over the next couple of years, given the recent spending review settlement. The additional £3.5bn in the spending review for local authorities (through council tax rises and the Better Care Fund) by the end of this parliament is welcome, but as this funding is back-loaded, with the full benefit occurring only as we approach 2020, most councils will not see any positive impact in the short to medium term. For many, the need to find further efficiencies in the face of increasing demand and expectations from those needing care and support will continue to create challenges for delivery across the system.

Difficult decisions about allocation of resources and maximising outcomes will rest with frontline social workers and the quality of their approaches to working with individuals in their communities. Social work has its roots in concern about poverty and the impact it can have on people reaching their potential: it has always worked to ensure that people have appropriate access to benefits and advocacy, and that the voices of the most marginalised and vulnerable members of our society are heard.

Despite its good settlement in the spending review, pressures on the NHS remain. It must grasp the opportunity to have social work as part of its offer, particularly in primary care, beyond the statutory role that social workers undertake on behalf of local authorities. Social workers serve as a bridge between patients, their families and healthcare teams. They are ideally placed to work alongside GPs to address early intervention, picking up on the practical, social and emotional issues that may be affecting people’s health and wellbeing. They can identify and seize opportunities to use family and holistic approaches, particularly to address isolation and loneliness and the depression and physical health symptoms that can result.

The NHS is missing a trick if it fails to recognise the role and contribution social workers can make in an integrated health and care system, improving outcomes for people, keeping them safe and reducing expenditure across health and care as a whole. The new models of care all require input and leadership from skilled social workers and allied health professionals, working alongside doctors and nurses in true multi-disciplinary partnerships with patients.

Social workers are regulated, highly trained and professionally autonomous practitioners who make a vital contribution. Yet like colleagues such as occupational therapists and physios their contribution does not get the profile it deserves. If integration of health and social care is ever really going to deliver the improvements we are seeking, this needs to change - and change quickly.

Source: The Guardian