“We need to think in more integrated and innovative ways about how we can empower people and communities to make healthier choices in their lives. We need to focus efforts across society on these big opportunities.”

Healthy Lives, Healthy People: Our strategy for public health in England

People in England are living longer than ever, but health inequalities still exist in many areas of the country. These inequalities impact the length and quality of people’s lives. The need to address this is expressed in the recent Public Health White Paper, ‘Healthy Lives, Healthy People’, which encourages a move towards providing local communities with the tools to address their own specific local needs.

As Local Authorities and GP Consortia take on increased responsibility for local health issues, and Primary Care Trusts continue to support local health as roles and remits transition, it is important to identify appropriate, flexible and responsive approaches for improving people’s lives within their local area.

Providing peer support services: Health Trainers and Health Champions

Peer support services, which can incorporate Health Trainers and / or Health Champions, are provided by people who are from or are knowledgeable of the community within which they are working. They provide support within the heart of a local community.

The aim of these services is to support people in becoming ‘their own health trainer’, particularly those from some of the most deprived communities in England. This is done through information provision and personalised health planning support which empowers individuals to make healthier choices for themselves and change their lives for the better.

Peer support services can provide one-to-one or group level support within a community for: individuals living in deprived circumstances, specific communities of interest, offenders and others who are socially excluded. Nationally 2/3 of ‘clients’ who are making use of existing Health Trainer Services are from the most deprived communities.

Based on national Health Trainer Service Data Collection and Reporting System (DCRS) which showed that of 196,033 clients, 67.75% were from the most deprived communities according to deprivation status any indicator(Birmingham Primary Care Shared Services, Health Trainers DCRS National Hub Report, December 2010).

Clients can be identified and approached proactively, or may be referred by word of mouth or via community / health professionals.

How can I identify if I need a peer support service for my locality?

  • There are specific lifestyle-relatedillnesses prevalent in the community
  • Members of the community are not accessing existing health services and support which is available
  • Additional resource and support is needed to reach some of the most at-need parts of the community
  • Those currently in roles which support healthier lifestyle choices would benefit from increased health improvement / promotion skills

Specific skills these services can provide in your area

Health Trainers (currently paid) and Health Champions (currently volunteer) undertake National Qualifications to allow them to they carry out their roles effectively. This training also ensures they are competent against recognised National Occupational Standards.

Health Champions provide peer support and basic information on healthy choices, and have a ‘signposting’ role to direct people into support services. Those with Health Trainer qualifications provide more tailored one-to-one support, helping clients to plan and achieve positive behaviour change.

Key areas covered within these qualifications are:

  1. Building relationships and communicating effectively with a range of people to provide appropriate information and support to improve health and wellbeing;
  2. Knowledge of the key elements of good health and wellbeing, and how to promote this effectively, including tackling counter arguments to positive change;
  3. Effective cross sector and agency working, including knowledge of specificlegislation which can impact this working;
  4. The ability to support individuals in developing achievable and personalised health plans, therefore encouraging short and longer term behaviour change.

What does this mean for local people and communities?

A tailored peer support service can help

  1. Identify and engage with individuals who are in need of support;
  2. Build a person’s self-belief and self-efficacy;
  3. Increase people’s access to services, as well as boosting use of available services which are not always maximised (e.g. community leisure centres);
  4. Empower local people and communities through helping them develop and ‘own’ change at an individual and community level;
  5. Encourage healthier behaviour as a norm across a community;
  6. Support some of the most excluded and deprived people who are often difficult to reach;
  7. Increase community engagement and involvement, particularly when supporting group activities;
  8. Up skill people from within a community if they choose to themselves become a Health Trainer or Champion, and therefore also help reduce local unemployment.

Options for developing a peer support service

There are three main options for utilising the skills and support that can be provided by peer support services – however there is flexibility in how these could be applied in your area allowing you to provide support which is responsive to changing needs:

  1. Standalone service provided by those trained with Health Trainer or Health Champion skills to support local communities
  2. Additional service which is integrated within an existing service, such as a lifestyle support service or GP practice
  3. Enhancement of skills for those in existing roles, allowing them to more effectively support and encourage positive life choices

For more information contact Elaine Varley, East Midlands Health Trainer Hub Manager.

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