NHS pressures, faith organisations and community-based services – why won’t we use what’s already there?

Ten years on from the banking crisis and the start of austerity, cuts are still biting and the effects of real term reductions in spending are felt by most of us. Yet, we also know that the misuse of resources too has a huge effect – particularly when it comes to the NHS and social care.

Working as part of the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector Health and Wellbeing Alliance (which partners with NHS England, the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England) continues to give me and the rest of the FaithAction team a real insight into the issues facing the health and care system. So, when I recently decided that I should get my blood pressure checked, rather than heading to my GP or a walk-in centre, I set off for my local pharmacy.

Pharmacists can do far more than most of us think, which provides a possible way of relieving pressure on doctors’ surgeries and hospitals. However, it was only at the third pharmacy I visited that my blood pressure was finally taken – and even that came with a catch.

Pharmacy one (part of a large chain) listed blood pressure tests among the services it offered, proudly displayed on the wall. All was looking positive: there were no other customers and three members of staff were present. The look of surprise when I asked for the test was my first clue. Then I was told that they could not do the test on a weekend!

At pharmacy two, they did not even offer this service, but could sell me a machine for £40.

At pharmacy three, I was directed into to a side room where a machine performed the task, with a little print-out, but at a cost of £1.

So my perseverance paid off, but the expectation seemed to be that I should really go to my GP instead. The problem is that, where I live, taking up a GP appointment has quite a knock-on effect. If I can get an appointment for something that does not actually need a doctor or practice nurse, I am taking the place of someone else who really needs it. And if you cannot get an appointment, you are directed to A&E, which in itself builds pressure in the system.

What we need is for community-based services such as pharmacies to be evangelical about what they can offer: that is, rather than putting people off, they need to encourage people to go to them first, other than in the direst of circumstances.

And here we see the link to faith organisations. They may not be like pharmacies in terms of physical health, but there is a great opportunity here for ‘social prescribing’. So often what people really need is people. GPs I know tell me that at least half of their appointments could be better dealt with elsewhere. There is a huge need related to isolation and a lack of that family member or friend who can assist in troubled times.

It seems obvious that community-based services and faith groups – whether those for a specific faith community or those offering more widely available activities like coffee mornings or parent and toddler groups – provide a great connecting point, person to person.

We need to use community-based services better; they need to be welcoming and hospitable; but they also need to be recognised, not as an after-thought, but as a great opportunity for the health and social care system.