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Peer support has great potential to boost person centred care and is greatly valued by people who take part in it says Nesta and National Voices as they launch the review Peer Support: What Is It and Does It Work?

There is evidence that peer support can help people feel more knowledgeable, confident and happy, and less isolated and alone. The review showed that there is a limited understanding of the different forms of peer support, how best to deliver support and the forms of training and infrastructure to get the most impact from it. Further evidence is needed to fully understand the impact it has on the health service and individuals with long-term health conditions.

The peer support literature review analysed over 1000 research studies on peer support from around the world to find out who is involved in it, the type of support provided and why. The findings showed that peer support can take many forms, such as informal telephone calls, group get-togethers, online forums or structured training.

Existing evidence examined by the review showed that peer support is worth investing in as a way of tackling long-term health conditions but knowledge on the service could be strengthened by commissioning more robust and detailed evaluations of the impacts and reasons why peer support works better in some contexts and for some groups. This could be done through systematic reviews and randomised controlled trials or by evidence that detailed how support was offered or what the most useful components were.

Halima Khan, director at Nesta, said: “Equipping people with the skills, knowledge and confidence to manage their own health and wellbeing is critical. Both for them as individuals and for the sustainability of the health system. The NHS was designed to cure people from acute and infectious disease. But times have now changed and we need to be able to support people to live with long term health conditions. Through our work we see that peer support is highly valued by those that use it, but we need more evidence to understand which types are most effective and how it could work best to support the millions of people living with long term conditions.”

Don Redding, director of policy at National Voices, said: “Peer support builds people’s confidence to make changes and manage their health and care. It is described in the NHS’ Forward View as one of the essential components of new models of care. To commission it successfully the NHS will need to draw on the knowledge and experience of voluntary and community sector groups and invest in a programme of expansion, backed by robust evaluation.”

Many organisations and voluntary groups provide peer support as a way of helping people live with these issues. Through the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund, the Cabinet Office and Nesta are funding projects to test different types of peer support and gather evidence on them. For example, The Stroke Association run support groups led by people who have recovered from a stroke themselves and RNIB run groups led by people who have experienced sight loss for those recently diagnosed.

The publication of the research coincides with the recent launch of Realising the Value, a new initiative to find, test, share and roll out the best ways that people with health conditions work with their communities and health professionals.

Realising the Value is delivered by a large consortium with a strong track record and expertise in the area of putting people at the centre of their own care. Consortium partners include Nesta, the Health Foundation and National Voices. More info at www.realisingthevalue.org.uk

In England, long-term conditions affect more than 15 million people. And over the next 25 years the number of people with long term conditions will rise by an estimated 23 per cent. [1] When people with long term conditions actively work with their practitioners and peers to look after their health, their wellbeing improves. There are wide reaching benefits: better mental and physical health, cost savings and wider social value.

Peer Support: What Is It and Does It Work? can be downloaded and read here.