Peer health support: Not flying solo anymore

04 Jul 2018

In the week of the NHS 70th birthday this guest post from Anne Cooper highlights how important the NHS is to those with long-term health conditions. But how can peer networks complement the support that the NHS provides? Anne is a registered nurse living with Type 1 diabetes.

The NHS was 15 the year that I was born. I am part of the lucky generation, we know no different, the NHS has always been there for us; whereas our parents remember the times when healthcare wasn’t free and perhaps have a different level of respect and gratitude for what we have. I have been a recipient of expensive care since I was 16 years old when I was diagnosed as having Type 1 Diabetes. I have never had to worry about where my care will come from although I do, sometimes, in my more grateful moments, remember that perhaps if I had been born at a different time I would not be around now.

While looking back in appreciation is a lovely thing to do it’s also important to look forward. The increasing demands on the NHS mean that we absolutely need to find new ways to do things and using digital tools is a great place to start. We can also capitalise on the expertise that already exists across communities of people who are looking after themselves by connecting them digitally – community in this sense is not geographically located, it’s a collection of people who all feel they have something in common, a shared experience. In other words, they are ‘peers’ in ‘peer networks’.

I think I went for 31 years with Diabetes before I actually spoke to someone else who had Type 1. That’s 31 years of sitting in clinics, likely as not next to people just like me, but never having a conversation, never sharing experiences and never sharing hints and tips about how life could be so much better. How is that honestly possible that we have failed to capitalise on that opportunity and on the collective knowledge and skills that people with chronic conditions have?

Thanks to social media, fast forward to today, where I have a rich and vibrant virtual network of people who also have Type 1. They are supportive, knowledgeable and just about there all the time. Geographically they are all over the world. I can ask them anything and they hopefully feel that equally they can talk to me. We laugh about the challenges we all face, and we have fun. I can honestly say that being connected to these lovely people makes my life better.

In the future we need to make sure that where these networks exist – there are many more, its not just Diabetes – we signpost people to them and, just as importantly, make sure they have the skills and resources to access them. We need to help people to be more resourceful in looking after themselves and peer support networks could play a vital role. I have an hour in each year of my consultant’s time which means that for most of the time I am flying solo. We need to help people to access these peer networks so they can help themselves (and forge new and lasting friendships) while they are doing that solo flight.

Digital literacy is an important part of ensuring people have health literacy. We need people to be able to access digital resources as a first line of support that helps people to remain independent and well. This is especially the case in chronic conditions, where living with a condition is a blend of knowledge of a disease/condition and the know-how of living a good life with that condition. Digital literacy is not a nice to have, its an essential part of self-management and is a vital part of the NHS of the future if we want people to remain independent and resilient in the face of increasingly complex health conditions.