27/07/2016 06:10 BST | Updated 27/07/2017 06:12 BST

Can Primary Care Provide a Gateway to Social Care and Community Support Services?

The primary role of GPs has always been, and will continue to be, to treat common medical conditions and to refer patients to hospitals and other services for urgent and specialist treatment. Whilst there have always been GPs who are interested in signposting patients to community-based social care and support services, they have tended to be in the minority.

But gradually the role of GPs and primary care teams have been changing. Driven by the integration agenda - which seeks a greater level of integration of front line care - but also by the changing nature of health needs and rising demand on the NHS, new kinds of primary care services are being set up. Increasingly, patients are able to access GP-led integrated primary care hubs offering a range of services, or to be given a 'social prescription' which provides them with access to non-medical services such as social clubs, peer support networks or even arts therapy and gardening. However, even with a growing evidence base that these models of care reduce long term demand on acute services, we have not yet seen a major shift in this direction.

This is why the recently published General Practice Forward View is so welcome. As well as setting out detailed plans for the recruitment of more GPs and the improved use of technology, it argues for the expansion of the role of GPs into prevention and for the promotion of community-based care and support. More specifically the report calls for more areas to incorporate the multi-specialty community providers (MCPs) model of care - a model of integrated primary, out-of-hospital and preventative care which is being piloted in 14 areas. West Wakefield MCP, for instance, has trained over 60 people to become care navigators, whose role it is to direct people to alternative sources of community-based care and support. The report argues as well for the expansion in the use of social prescribing models, which enable GPs to work with voluntary and community organisations to give people access to advice on employment, housing, debt and other support services.

We are beginning to see how exciting this future could be. In York, for instance, GP-led multi-disciplinary integrated care hubs have been established to provide people with a single point of access to a full range of health and social care services, achieving both increased patient satisfaction and reduced costs to hospitals. And in Rotherham, a social prescription initiative is connecting people in some of the most deprived communities to a vast range of community-based services, keeping people healthy and independent for longer.

Rightly, GPs are the first point of access for many into the NHS. But located in the heart of communities, GPs also have to potential to offer a gateway to a much wider range of care and support services, potentially saving the NHS money and improving outcomes.