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GPs refer ‘non-clincial needs’ to parish church

02 June 2023

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AS THE NHS faces mounting problems, from thousands of appointments lost through strikes to record-length waits for treatment, a church in Hampshire is attempting to boost the welfare of its community.

St Mary’s, Andover, is taking referrals from five GP surgeries in the town for places on social-improvement courses, which it organises. The Lighthouse project offers support, which includes: a well-being course at the town’s further education college; debt-management advice in a partnership with the charity Christians Against Poverty; and the Good Grub Club, a community cooking and food programme that seeks to prevent food waste.

The church also operates the Life Bus: a double-decker that visits housing estates for “Make and Munch” lunch and crafts sessions. The project has supported at least 800 people since it began, and has engaged more than 170 volunteers.

The Vicar of St Mary’s, the Revd Chris Bradish, said: “There are many people who visit their GP with non-clinical needs — some may need help with debt, loneliness, or they may be struggling with other issues in their lives, such as food poverty. The partnership has meant that their needs can be assessed, and they can be offered help and time through social prescribing.”

The project grew out of a wish to serve the community during the pandemic by pairing volunteers with “phone friends” to combat isolation and loneliness. Soon, they were taking referrals direct from GPs and mental-health charities. The scheme was wound down as Covid declined, but the parish wanted to use the social capital it had amassed to continue its work. “Everybody in the boat has had to live with choppy waters,” Mr Bradish said, “but some boats have fared better than others, and we all need support some times.”

They successfully applied for grant funding, and devised a programme of projects. A significant part was a link with the newly created Primary Care Network (PCN), which was designed to take pressure off GPs by handling non-clinical needs. Now, the Lighthouse team is co-located with the PCN in offices in central Andover.

“That opens up some really exciting social prescribing opportunities, like referrals into our bereavement care; debt management and counselling; and referring our parishioners into mental health and well-being care,” Mr Bradish said. “Occasionally, we have had referrals from the PCN into the Alpha programme of people who are contemplating their own existence, and why we exist.

“It has been very symbiotic: we have increased our links with the community, and also people’s links with the church. It is certainly a model in which others might be interested.”

Last week, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, said that churches could do great work in collaboration with charities and health services for the betterment of people’s mental health (News, 26 May). She was speaking at a conference organised by ChurchWorks in collaboration with Waveley Abbey College and hosted at Westminster Chapel in London. Social prescribing, in which doctors refer people to community initiatives as part of holistic treatment for mental-and physical-health issues, was the main focus of the event.

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