What are the opportunities for personalised care to connect people to music and the arts including through social prescribing and the role of link workers

August 13, 2020

James Sanderson, Director of Personalised Care, NHS England & NHS Improvement

As I sat down to watch a film a few years ago with my youngest son I was suddenly transported back over 40 years. The song playing during the opening scene was ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’ – a track that I have on original vinyl. And here I was years later, listening to the same track with my own teenager, hopefully forging a memory for him that Mr Blue Sky would recall when he is older – about our regular family film nights together.

Such is the connection of music to our relationships, our happiness and our lives, and the power it has to transport us to to a different time and place.

But until recently, the value of music – or indeed other forms of art, culture, or even sports and recreation – has not been sufficiently recognised or used as a way to help address the challenges facing public services and health.

Too often, our views of what ‘helps’ people are too narrow.

More complexity

In modern medicine, for example, many of the challenges people face cannot always be solved by an appointment, medication or an operation. What keeps us well or helps make us well is so much more complex than this. Social isolation is a perfect example: people who experience this are much more likely to also experience health problems.  But social connection is an intricate balance of the relationships people have, the activities they participate in, the place they live, the resources they have, their background and level of education, the memories they have and the experiences they generate in their day-to-day lives.

It is why I, and many others, believe that personalised care, which incorporates social prescribing, is vital to enabling people to live their best life possible and addressing some of the big challenges we face as a society.

Social prescribing

Personalised care is about giving people choice and control over the way their care is planned and delivered, and ensuring that their care is fundamentally based on what matters to them.  It is a practical way of supporting relationships, encouraging activities, connecting to communities and enabling people to access the resources they need. And it does so in partnership with, and not instead of, professionals and public services.

Social prescribing – one of the core components of the comprehensive model for personalised care – helps build relationships, unlock individual strengths, increase choice and control, and support connections within the communities where people live. It is about discovering or rediscovering the joy in life, trying something new, or building on a hidden or long forgotten talent.

It can be a way of maintaining connections, as well as providing stimulation or distraction. Through social prescribing and personalised care planning, the last few weeks have seen examples of music playlists for people via MP3 players being delivered to their homes, art by post, accessing online groups to connect with people in similar circumstances, online choirs, community book deliveries to people who have been shielding, alongside many other brilliant community interventions.  This has benefitted not only people facing the greatest challenges, such as people living with dementia, but also the people caring for them.

Link workers

Social prescribing link workers who are a new addition to the health and care workforce are being employed across all Primary Care Networks in England and have played a big role in this type of support. Through them, the aim is for social prescribing to reach nearly a million people by 2024.   Link workers spend time with people, seek to understand what’s important for them to lead a more active and connected life and then link them up with community based support- which could mean anything from cooking classes to walking groups, and of course access to music and the arts. Implementing Universal Personalised Care is part of commitments made by the NHS for what the health and care system should look like in the future.  Perhaps one in which the power of music and the arts is more widely recognised as a way of supporting people to maintain good health and well-being.

Access to the arts

But help is needed – a wide range of partners need to continue the powerful social movement that has created social prescribing so far. The National Academy for Social Prescribing will provide powerful voice for the many thousands of people, communities and organisations working across the country to deliver daily support to people by supporting them to access the arts and music alongside other activities.  We look forward to working with innovative specialist organisations like Music for Dementia to create new opportunities for people to connect and develop through music.

There will continue to be challenges. But the prize of coordinated, national action across the many thousands of people and partners already working together in order to improve lives is a big one. Let’s see what the role of music can be within this revolution.


James Sanderson is the Director of Personalised Care at NHS England and NHS Improvement where he leads on a range of programmes that are supporting people to have greater choice and control over their health and wellbeing.  James also became the CEO to the National Academy for Social Prescribing (NASP) in 2019 where James leads on creating partnerships, across the arts, health, sports, leisure, and the natural environment, alongside other aspects of our lives, to promote health and wellbeing at a national and local level. View the NASP strategy here.

James joined NHS England in November 2015 and was formerly the Chief Executive and Accounting Officer for the Independent Living Fund (ILF). The ILF was an arm’s length body of the DWP and supported disabled people across the whole of the UK to live independent lives through the provision of direct payments enabling the purchase of personal assistance support.

Prior to joining the ILF in 2002, James had a career in the motor industry within a number of sales and marketing roles, in both corporate and retail environments. James is a performing arts graduate with a background in community theatre

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