Communities are in a strong position to know what they want out of healthcare solutions – knowledge that has the potential to drive successful and scalable user-centred design, writes Dr Matthew Dolman.

Last year’s NHS long-term plan promoted social prescribing – the chance for health services to point patients towards community activities to improve local health outcomes. A year on, it is clear that social prescribing, although supported by the government, is not being used as much in local practice as it could be.

One way to maximise the potential of social prescribing is to work with those who know the community best – its members – to co-design solutions that help the community. By implementing these initiatives strategically, we could see a reduced requirement for GP services.

This route is one that was explored by Transform Ageing, a pioneering partnership between Design Council, UnLtd, the Centre for Ageing Better and the South West Academic Health Science Network.

One way to maximise the potential of social prescribing is to work with those who know the community best – its members – to co-design solutions that help the community

The programme sought to overcome some of the challenges faced by people in later life in South West England through social entrepreneurship, community and design.

There are many health benefits for older adults who take part in the kinds of organised community activities that social prescribing encourages, both for individuals and communities. Exercise groups can be beneficial for muscle strength and taking part in activities with others can reduce loneliness and encourage higher levels of mental stimulation. 

Transform Ageing supported 62 social enterprises to develop active and creative solutions to support the needs and aspirations of the local ageing community. These kinds of solutions, if scaled, could have a significant impact on demand for local healthcare.

Designed initiatives
Communities are in a strong position to know what they want out of healthcare solutions – knowledge that has the potential to drive successful and scalable user-centred design. We live in complex systems that are often unique to individual communities, so trying to create blueprints has its limitations.

But, if design principles can be nurtured at a community level, then the outcomes will be more effective, and there will be a better chance of reliable delivery. As a result of the programme, older people have reported feeling more confident, motivated, and in control of their lives.

In exploring design-led solutions we should be engaging with the national agenda around the formation of primary care networks

Interestingly, 46 per cent of the social entrepreneurs supported by Transform Ageing were aged over 50 themselves, proving there are opportunities to both drive and benefit from social prescribing in later life. Whether participating or organising, the impact of increased mental and physical activity has the potential to improve individual and community health.

The new GP contract incentivises social prescribing by funding link workers, who connect people to community groups and services. In exploring design-led solutions we should be engaging with the national agenda around the formation of primary care networks.

The success of community-led and designed initiatives currently depends on health services knowing about them and communicating what is available. With the support of primary care networks we need to ensure that residents and health and care teams hear about opportunities and, for those interested, provide the tools they need to design them.

With this kind of effective solution in place, we could see a real difference in demand for local healthcare. A considerable proportion of every day practice sees to concerns and issues that are non-clinical. The right initiatives, signposted by link workers as part of social prescribing, could release this time for health service staff to focus on high priority clinical concerns.

The success of community-led and designed initiatives currently depends on health services knowing about them and communicating what is available

As a result, teams will have a better experience at work, communities will have a better chance to thrive, and individual and community health outcomes will improve.

We need to use some of the measures that are available to evidence successful community-sourced solutions, like those developed in the Transform Ageing programme, so they can be adopted and scaled to make real difference.

With a growing ageing population across the UK beyond the South West coupled with increased strain on health services, we need to make the most of the insight and skill of communities in knowing what they need, and ensure that residents are given the tools to steer the design of initiatives that will shape their healthcare journey.

Learn more about Transform Ageing at designcouncil.co.uk. Tune in to a livestream to learn more about community-sourced solutions to healthcare on Thursday 27 February from 2pm at Facebook.com/designcouncil

The article was originally published on HSJ.co.uk

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