Why providers should invest in peer support for service users

A group of charitable providers have set up an independent organisation to provide peer support to service users. This approach can help improve service quality, efficiency and flexibility, say Bernd Sass and Sue Taylor.

Providers have long been told of the need to personalise their services and use any such redesign as an opportunity to involve and empower people with support needs. At the same time ‘lived experience’ has been seen as the answer to many problems in access to services and in achieving lasting and positive health and independent living outcomes, not to mention productivity gains. Yet little concrete action has followed from either providers or commissioners to bring the multiple positive effects of peer support to fruition. 

Now a consortium of charities in the North East has set up an independent user-led organisation for disabled people in order to change this. Peer Support North East has been established as a community interest company by Age UK, Alzheimer’s Society, Your Voice Counts, Mental Health Matters and Sight Service Gateshead.
It now has 20 mentors who are supporting 350 of their peers a month, with disabled and older people supporting each other across age ranges and impairment groups, cutting across the boundaries between services.

Support is based around people’s diverse needs and aspirations, covering welfare benefits and routes into employment as well as personal budgets and direct payments. Also, Peer Support North East checks the services of services provided by consortium members for quality and contributes insights on strategic issues at both provider and local council forums. The initiative is part of a national programme led by Disability Rights UK and Shaping Our Lives to strengthen the influence of lived experience on commissioning.

Hearing from someone who has walked a similar path in the past can make a big difference, especially to people with a newly-acquired disability or long-term conditions or to older people facing limitations to their independent living. This is also often the time when people make a decision between taking an active interest in their communities or relying on professional-clinical services. Without doubt the real assets are in the person and not in the system.

For the charity consortium, its long-term investment in peer support means building a feedback mechanism into their own services. As a result, providers will be better prepared for the demands of more personalised and flexible solutions from service users. Finally, providers can improve on efficiency as bottlenecks in the system are more easily spotted and more readily rectified.  

While it is too early to produce robust evidence, the council commissioners in the area are keen to evaluate and – if appropriate – fund the mainstreaming of the initiative in recognition of the good outcomes for disabled and older people, providers and commissioners. Then the peer mentors should be able to move on from volunteer status to obtaining financial stakes in their community interest company, and a ‘right to peer support’ may be within reach in social care and the NHS in the North East.

Bernd Sass is strategic partnership manager at Disability Rights UK and Sue Taylor is chief executive officer of Sight Service Gateshead and a director of Peer Support North East.

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