GPs at a Gloucester surgery are referring patients to an in-house learning adviser. Martin Whittaker reports.
IT'S A busy Thursday afternoon at the Bartongate doctors' surgery in Gloucester and Sue Allies has a full list of patients to see.
But Sue isn't a GP - she's a learning adviser from the local further education college. Instead of prescribing pills, the surgery's doctors refer patients to her for a dose of learning.
College advisers have now joined healthcare teams at eight surgeries in Gloucester, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury in a groundbreaking project called Learning for Life, which was launched in April after a successful two-year pilot.
The project is backed by Gloucestershire's adult education service, social services and by the National Health Service.
It is being monitored by a researcher from Bristol University following evidence that learning can benefit health.
Bartongate is a modern practice in the heart of Gloucester, serving an ethnically diverse community.
Ms Allies, of Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology, launched the pilot at the surgery in 1996. Over two years she aimed to get a quarter of the patients she saw on to courses. Instead she achieved a third.
Patients are referred by GPs, health visitors, practice nurses, and sometimes even by reception staff.
They tend to be the long-term sick, unemployed or young people perhaps suffering from depression, and those who are repeatedly seeing the doctor.
Health visitors in particular have built up relationships with patients over many years and are well-placed to tune into possible education needs.
Their approach is low-key. "A typical case might be a young girl who stopped her education early," says health visitor Johanna Conway.
"You can probe a little bit to find out what they enjoyed at school. Was education a turn-off for them? Was it a good experience? Was there anything they really enjoyed?
"We need a scenario which is non-threatening. We say: look you can come and talk to this lady - she'll open up new horizons for you."
Ms Allies makes sure she's in reception to meet patients who are referred to her. And, where a GP might see them for minutes, she gives them an hour.
She will find out what they want, whether it's help with literacy, a computing course or simply the opportunity to get out once a week and meet other people. Then she gets on the phone to arrange it.
"We often get people suffering from depression, or who are at a low ebb. We also ge a lot of young mums who got pregnant at school and therefore missed out on schooling.
"We get chaps who truanted a lot and effectively left school at 11. Or we get older people who just need a new interest."
But what are the health benefits? "It's a case of trying to build up their self-esteem, get their confidence up, which may then help to alleviate their symptoms."
Bartongate GP Dr Colin Gold agrees. "There are a lot of patients who've got psychiatric problems, personality problems, drug problems - their lives are a complete mess," he says.
"They're not sure how to access any service, but a lot of them are thinking about education, about getting themselves back together. Sue gives them the opportunity to talk and think about it."
A recent survey by the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education has found evidence of links between learning and health.
When asked if learning made them feel physically better or helped them cope better with poor health, 87 per cent of adult learners said yes.
And 89 per cent felt they had experienced positive emotional or mental health benefits from learning.
The institute is now doing further research into the link between learning and health. It is monitoring another project involving New College, Nottingham, where learning advisers are also based in GPs' surgeries. And a conference on the issue is planned for December.
Health benefits apart, the institute says giving people access to guidance about learning options is a key way of reaching those who believe studying is not for them.
"Adult guidance is a neglected area nationally, but all practitioners will tell you that guidance is fundamental to widening participation," says Dr Peter Lavender, NIACE's director for research and development. "The projects in Gloucestershire and Nottingham are testing that. That's why they're really worth watching.
Dr Lavender also suggested that investing money in recruiting learners this way could pay for itself, as the students join colleges and bring in extra funding. "What's interesting in both cases is that a lot of the money (to fund the projects) has come from education. The realisation is that if you invest it, you'll get it back.
"That's why I think they're interesting projects at the moment, because the learning and skills councils from April will have the power to fund whatever they like. If they really want to fund guidance for adults as a 'gateway' (to learning), this will be a good way of doing it."