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Connecting expertise against COVID-19: An example from Northern Ireland

The Health & Social Care Board and the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland are both VIGOUR partners constituting the Northern Ireland pilot region. Their ambition in being part of VIGOUR is to get guidance and support for the development of ”Social Prescribing” in an integrated and evidence based way.


What is Social Prescibing?

“Social Prescribing is a means of enabling GPs and other frontline healthcare professionals to refer people to a link worker - to provide them with a face to face conversation during which they can learn about the possibilities and design their own personalised solutions, i.e. ‘co-produce’ their ‘social prescription’- so that people with social, emotional or practical needs are empowered to find solutions which will improve their health and wellbeing, often using services provided by the voluntary and community sector.” (UK Social Prescribing Network) 


What the problem was?

Social Prescribing as a concept requires collaboration between a large number of partners (multiple government departments, local councils, health and social care providers, the voluntary and community sector, citizens) and is at a relatively early stage in the UK so the evidence base and models of working are continually evolving. However there are already a number of locally developed social prescribing services in some areas of Northern Ireland, operating in different ways. A key objective is to find a way to build productive connections and a community of practice among those currently doing this work to help ensure shared learning and to inform the scale up and spread efforts with the help of VIGOUR.     


What the solution was - How does it work? What is the model, who is the team, who does it help?

They established a Project ECHO® Social Prescribing Network.

Project ECHO® was developed in the US and uses videoconferencing technology to connect communities of practice and employs a hub and spoke model and uses case based presentations as central to the learning. The “hub” is normally a multidisciplinary team who provide advice and support to the other participants (“spokes”) who generally join the ECHO sessions remotely from any device which has wifi connection and a camera eg laptop, phone tablet. All participants will have collectively agreed in advance the networks curriculum topics, dates, times and case study presenters.

The ECHO model develops knowledge and capacity by using video conferencing technology to leverage scarce resources and create networks which allow participants easier access to training and development. It helps to improve outcomes by reducing variations in processes of care and sharing best practices and has an emphasis on capturing the value of the network through evaluation. 

The Social Prescribing ECHO network is still at an early stage but runs on a monthly basis bringing together 30 social prescribing link workers across the region to share their good practice and learn together. Early feedback has indicated that 90% of those involved have learnt something new that has changed their practice and 90% feel there would be value in the network continuing in the long term.


How can this help VIGOUR partners or how can this help the current situation?

Project ECHO® has been used in Northern Ireland for almost five years to support a broad range of learning networks. It has become particularly important in supporting the response to Covid 19 as it allows large numbers of participants to come together virtually. In response to the global pandemic a number of existing Project ECHO networks have changed their focus and some new networks have been established specifically to support staff in quickly connecting expertise and best practice related to COVID 19 such as Community Pharmacy Network, Care home network, Palliative & End of Life Care network, UK Hospice wide network.  

You can find out more about how Project ECHO first originated by clicking here and more about how it has been applied in Northern Ireland here.

The team at Northern Ireland would be happy to provide more information about how ECHO can be used to support scale up and spread of good practice.