With social prescribing rising in healthcare, the question on the role of different parties is often discussed. At the core of social prescribing sits the link worker. This role has, since its coinage, continued to develop and has come with a range of responsibilities.
Yet the definition of link worker varies from organisation to organisation. Different responsibilities and focus points are often named.
Different names for similar roles
Social navigator, community connector, health advisor, community navigator, and wellbeing advisor.
They are often used as synonyms to ‘link worker’. The reason for this is partly because link workers have not just started existing, just like social prescribing has been an active field for many years under different names.
The work of community organisations in many ways is the work of social prescribing with a change in the involvement and approach from healthcare. Many voluntary organisations already had roles that were responsible for conversing with individuals and finding a fitting programme to help with their concerns. This activity existed long before social prescribing officially entered the NHS dictionary.
How do different organisations define a link worker
The role of link worker being a fairly new one, its definition has not been set in stone either. NHS England defines the role of the link worker as follows:
“Social prescribing link workers help to reduce health inequalities by supporting people to unpick complex issues affecting their wellbeing”.
They state that social prescribers enable people to have more control over their lives, as well as allow them to develop skills and give their time to others. This, according to NHS England, is done through involvement in community groups.
It continues to name a number of responsibilities for link workers, mentioning they have a non-clinical role and help people develop friendships, skills and resilience via connecting them to community groups.
Voluntary Health Scotland on the other hand speaks of community link workers and defines them as “a generalist social practitioner based in a GP practice serving a socio-economically deprived community, addressing the problems and issues that the individual brings to the consultation, rather than a worker whose domain is limited to a specified range of conditions or illnesses, or one who is based elsewhere within health, social care or other services.”
The National Association of Link Workers (NALW) makes similar statements to the previously mentioned organisations when clarifying what it means to be a link worker. They, however, decide to focus on the actual tasks and responsibilities at hand for defining the link worker role, mentioning the varying roles that are out in the field. Amongst the most relevant responsibilities the NALW lists are: increasing people’s confidence and building trust and relationships with people.
The government website yet again offers a similar, yet slightly different description, mentioning that link workers give people time and focus on what matters to them. The help offered follows from shared decision making or personalised care and support planning. They connect people to community groups and agencies for practical and emotional support. Link workers collaborate with local partners to help community groups be accessible and sustainable and support people starting new groups.
The King’s Fund offers a brief explanation on what a link worker does on their website: “[a link worker] works with people to access local sources of support”.
Finally, DNA Insight, a training platform for social prescribing, defines the role as “Social Prescribers/Link Workers, Care Coordinators and Health Coaches give people time, focusing on ‘What Matters to Me’. Using the principles of Personalised Care, they take a holistic approach to people’s health and wellbeing, connecting people to community groups and statutory services for practical and emotional support, and allowing people to take greater control over their health and wellbeing.”
What definition is the right one?
As the previous definitions show, the role of a link worker is varied and ranges in responsibilities per locality. Because of that it can be difficult to agree fully on a definitive description of a link worker.
However, we can start seeing an overlap between the different meanings as presented by various organisations.
A common misconception is that link workers provide their services at General Practices only. In reality link workers are stationed at a plethora of organisations. Think of:
- General Practices
- Local councils
- Voluntary organisations
- Housing associations
People not patients
Relevant to giving an adequate description is a steer away from labelling the people link workers serve as ‘patient’. Though a fitting term for a GP link worker, many social prescribers work outside of primary care and do not deal with patients who have visited a GP.
But a steer away from the term patient does a little more than simply cover the range of people finding help. Describing people that are offered help as ‘people’, ‘persons’ or ‘individuals’ those seeking help are not put into a strict healthcare corner. It also falls neatly in line with the NHS’s steer for personalised care.
Non-clinical and holistic
In addition, one item that is clear across the board is that a link worker is a non-clinical and holistic role. The key to social prescribing is offering non-clinical interventions and bringing about change via socialising and exercising rather than using medicine as a health intervention.
There's emerging proof on the effectiveness of this holistic method with the impact of social prescribing showing great promise.
Connecting with people is of vital importance to a link worker's role. Not just in the sense that link workers point individuals to services, but also in the sense that link workers build a relationship with people and offer dedicated time to connect and discover what is of importance to the person seeking help.
In order to connect people to the right service, a good knowledge of services on offer is important. As part of the link worker role there should be an awareness of services, new and old, that they can use for their signposting.
Addressing health inequalities
Following different descriptions, we can see the importance of a link worker in reducing health inequalities, either socially or economically.
A link worker can offer advice or point to a good service that can help with debt, social welfare or employment issues.