Blackpool Better Start appointed seven “health connectors” in 2018 to work across the town and to connect the local community with health-related programmes, services and volunteering opportunities.
These roles – filled by local people with a knowledge of the community and parents’ needs – were created alongside a number of “community connectors” to help build support and confidence among families that could be considered “hard to reach”.
In Blackpool, however, we avoid using the term hard to reach because we believe it is the services that can be difficult to effectively engage, not our families.
Many families in Blackpool report feeling poorly connected with services in their communities, so health and community connectors support families to access appropriate support and also work alongside services to consider different ways of working. Trust in professionals is often low, and therefore having a peer-led approach is an effective way of building community participation and engagement.
In the Improving Care Pathways Community Framework report, NHS England describes community connectors or social prescribing link workers as “positive practice examples of community connection”.
The report describes the key function of this role as being someone who is familiar with resources and assets available in the community, varying and tailoring the support provided, and, through relationship building, quickly assessing a person’s ability and motivation to engage with community activities.
Blackpool’s health connectors are responsible for collecting data and evidence to demonstrate the impact of their work on referral uptake and sustained contact, and show improved outcomes as a result of this approach.
Our connectors co-produce initiatives with the community to influence how services are engaged, and signpost families to health resources that help parents make positive choices for themselves and their children.
Over the past 18 months, the health connectors have focused on promoting uptake and access to health-related services such as Healthy Start vouchers and vitamins, speech and language services, antenatal education and oral health services. They are also instrumental in the participation levels of specific Better Start programmes including an infant feeding peer support service, sling library, pregnancy and pram walks, and healthy eating/physical activity courses.
The attendance of health connectors at booking clinics, engaging with pregnant women and their partners in the first trimester has increased the uptake of the NSPCC Baby Steps antenatal course by 10 per cent, demonstrated by the data collected over the past nine months. Due to this success, attendance of health connectors at booking clinics is being rolled out across the whole team to continue to raise the reach of the Baby Steps programme.
There is overwhelming evidence on the benefits of parents-to-be attending antenatal groups in preparing them for the arrival of the baby, and also in tackling the emotional impact of a new baby on the parents’ relationship. Parents who attend Baby Steps are also nearly 20 per cent more likely to continue breastfeeding than that of the general Blackpool population. This is more in line with the national average, again making it crucial that we connect families with this service.
Oral health support
One of the areas in which health connectors play a significant role is through encouraging parents to attend a dentist. Children in Blackpool suffer from poor oral health compared to the rest of the country.
Public Health England figures show that in 2013, 17 per cent of three-year-olds and 40 per cent of five-year-olds were found to have dental decay – 30 per cent higher than the national average. Tooth extractions for children under 10 are four times the national average and 344 Blackpool children were admitted in 2015/16.
A dedicated oral health connector works within the Blackpool community to signpost families to oral health services and encourages families to register with local practices.
They work closely with dental surgeries to ensure all children under five can access free NHS dental treatment. This has led to families accessing dentists for the first time, and receiving treatment and oral health advice (see case study).
Through this grassroots support and engagement, we are seeing an increase in the amount of families in Blackpool that are accessing health-related services.
By employing members of the local community who have an in-depth understanding of the pitfalls of being a parent in Blackpool, we are able to deliver support when and where it is most needed.
POSITIVE IMPACT OF CONNECTORS ON FAMILIES IN BLACKPOOL
A mother who suffers with anxiety and poor oral hygiene, who attended and registered herself and her children at a local surgery with support from a health connector, explains the impact the programme has had for herself and her family.
“It’s been wonderful to have the connector in my life, I wouldn’t have got an appointment with the dentist without her,” she explains.
“I’m really happy that the children have also got appointments; it’s made a real difference to our family. I now have more confidence to go to the dentist on my own and with the children. I wouldn’t have done any of this without her.”