Faith-based groups 'increasingly stepping in to plug gaps in NHS'

Nicola Slawson
Sarah Mullally, the new bishop of London, says the research shows the important contribution the church is making. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Faith-based organisations are increasingly stepping in to support the overstretched NHS, research has found.

More than 3,500 churches and 200,000 volunteers are working on health and social care initiatives that are “plugging the gap” left by funding cuts and limited resources, according to the Cinnamon Network, a charity that connects faith-based organisations.

Sarah Mullally, the new bishop of London, said the charity’s report – called The Church’s Impact on Health and Care – showed the important contribution being made by the voluntary sector and specifically the church to promote health.

She said: “The NHS is under considerable pressure: increasing public expectation, increasing life expectancy, improvements in technology and limited resources. If we are able to improve our health and the health of the community, [the church] can contribute to the better use of those limited resources.”

The Cinnamon Network studied 32 church-led initiatives and identified how they tackle issues including mental health, obesity and social isolation.

David Simmons, who conducted the research, said the projects should be appealing to the NHS as they are so cost-effective. Research from 2016 estimated the value of the time given by UK church and faith groups to their communities each year to be £3bn.

Simmons said: “The potential is enormous and the work of these projects enables doctors and nurses to focus on their job. Most healthcare professionals I spoke to during the research were really glad that church groupsare really stepping up.”

Parish nursing is one of the projects highlighted by the report: registered nurses – some of whom are retired while others do it alongside working for the NHS – are recruited by churches on either a voluntary or paid basis to provide support to patients in their area.

James Morrow, a GP and managing partner of Granta Medical Practices in Cambridgeshire, said the parish nurse who worked with his GP practice was an invaluable addition to the team.

He said: “It’s clear that the NHS is being asked and expected to deliver things far beyond what it was expected to deliver 70 years ago, partly because care is being moved out of hospitals into the community, many more people are living longer and more people are living with chronic conditions. As a practice we really welcome voluntary organisations and the local community coming up with solutions.

“Our parish nurse has the ability to provide time and space in a non task-oriented way when so much of the health service is about productivity, measurables and deliverables. That doesn’t match to what people frequently need. She has the freedom to sit, engage and talk and can also act as an advocate for them. Parish nursing is everything we think community-based healthcare should be about.”

While the concept is popular in other countries, with 15,000 parish nurses globally, the most being located in the US where it was founded, it only came to the UK when a small pilot was launched in 2005.

Ros Moore, the chief executive of Parish Nursing, said the discrepancy was because the UK had a “very well developed” health service and the church’s role in healthcare had diminished since the launch of the NHS 70 years ago.

There are more than 100 nurses working with 85 churches across the UK and another 100 are expected to be established within the next 18 months, which Moore says highlights a growing need.

She said: “Parish nursing is doing what the NHS would like to do but doesn’t have the capacity to any more.”

While the initiative was not a silver bullet for the supply and demand issues of the NHS, she said, the health service “knows it can’t do everything that it used to do in the past”.

“District and practice nurses do a fantastic job but they have plenty to do,” she said. “Parish nurses are not here to replace them but they do more preventative care, support and monitoring of people who have been ill, which to be honest the NHS doesn’t do a lot of now. That’s just how it is.”

Ruth McDonald, a parish nurse in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, does the job alongside temporary nursing work. She said that while some of the patients she worked with were members of the church, most were not.

She said: “I have a real mixture of patients. I see people from many faiths or none. It’s not a barrier these days, especially as the church is now known for food banks, which are accessed by anyone. I think people are becoming much more accepting of what the church can offer.”