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Health and social care access for people experiencing homelessness and lessons for primary care

guest blogger3 November 2021

This blog is written by Caroline Shulman and Megan Armstrong. Caroline has worked as a GP for people experiencing homelessness in primary care and as a clinical lead in a hospital homeless team. Caroline is principal investigator (PI) on a range of projects on palliative care, frailty and homelessness. Megan was the senior research fellow on this project and currently is the Programme Manager of PD-Care and the PI of exploring self-management in those experiencing low socioeconomic deprivation. 

Though everyone’s circumstances are different, to support people experiencing homelessness, it helps to understand some of the underlying causes of homelessness. Systemic factors such as austerity, increase in poverty and inequality, regressive changes to welfare systems, increased job insecurity with more zero hours contracts, lack of affordable housing and a hostile environment for migrants have contributed to significant increases over the last decade. However, in addition, there are individual vulnerabilities that increase the likelihood of becoming homeless. It is estimated 90% of people who are homeless have experienced adverse childhood experiences with 54% experiencing four or more (1). Adverse childhood experiences include abuse (emotional, physical, sexual or neglect) and household dysfunction such as living with domestic violence, or with a family member who has an addiction, is suicidal, mentally ill or in prison. Lack of having needs met and being soothed as a child impacts on cognitive, emotional, and social development and unresolved trauma is associated with an overdevelopment of the emotional and reactive parts of the brain (2).

People experiencing homelessness have some of the worst health outcomes of any group in society with the average age of death being in their early 50s  (see here). They have a much higher rate of most long terms conditions, including heart disease, respiratory disease than even populations in the most deprived sectors of society. Conditions usually found in older populations, such as cognitive impairment, incontinence, poor mobility, and frailty are highly prevalent at a young age in this population. Many people, with a history of sleeping on the streets in London, end up on homeless hostels. Homeless hostels are staffed by support workers who have no training in health or social care. In one hostel (for adults aged 35+), where residents average age was 55, frailty scores were equivalent to a population of people in their late 80s. All had multimorbidity with the average number of conditions per person being seven. Older age conditions such as cognitive impairment, falls and poor mobility were highly prevalent, though only 9% had any form of social services package of care (3).

One reason for the young age of death of people experiencing homelessness is the barriers they often face in accessing health and social care. Our study aimed to explore these barriers and potential facilitators from the perspectives of hostel residents and staff (4). We interviewed 18 homeless hostel managers/support staff and 15 people experiencing homelessness from six homeless hostels in London and Kent.

We found there were service barriers to health and social care access due to:

Stigma of both the residents and the hostel staff (often reporting not being believed):

“We have got one of the local GPs around here, they will not accept our residents unless a keyworker is with them, and they have to attend all appointments with them and register with them. They won’t accept them on their own.” Support worker

Lack of communication and information sharing from services with the hostel:

“I was that upset and annoyed that she’s [social worker] not speaking to anyone else that I’m working with [in the hostel]. I said, “It’s not keeping you up to date.” I speak to you once every three weeks, you don’t know what’s happening. So I could be going through a really difficult time and you’re not aware of it….” Resident

A lack of trust from the residents and a struggle to build relationships beyond the hostel staff:

“I’m still finding I’m having to learn to trust people. I don’t always trust people now, and my confidence is not brilliant. Once I know someone [this is different]…., but I’m not very good coming forward at the beginning.” Resident

Incorrect assumptions around capacity and the role of the hostel:

“I think because a lot of people presume because it’s [the hostel] a 24-hour manned project, they’ve got staff. They [external services] don’t really realise that our job isn’t to be carers…It’s not always practical to see everybody every single day. What people see from the outside is 24-hour staff” Support worker

The impact of lack of health and social care support led to staff going beyond their job role, continuous support needed by the residents, and burnout:

“We also have to go and collect people’s medications. We don’t have to but we’re doing that as well and liaising with GPs to put [medication] in dosette boxes and things like that.” Hostel staff

Overall, the hostel staff and residents had a great, trusting relationship. However, due to the lack of external service support, this can become a huge responsibility for the hostel staff. The quote below highlights the trust in the hostel staff.

“I think she [hostel staff member] cares about me. I’ve never actually asked her, does she care? The staff here are alright, I like them. I like the staff here. I ain’t got a bad word to say about them.”

An example of the causes of burnout for hostel staff include the trauma when a resident dies:

“When he was standing along the walls and he was saying, “I’m feeling pain,” and he just slid into the floor. It was during the night, early morning so there were only two staff. Staff were running up and down. It was quite a traumatic experience.”

See our recent paper and blog on palliative care for people experiencing homelessness.

What does this mean for primary care?

  • Everyone needs to be able to register with a GP. Groundswell have developed ‘My Right to Healthcare’ cards that can be posted for free.
  • Training is available for reception staff including a short 6 minute video: resources here
  • Primary Care Networks should consider having an inequalities lead to explore local solutions. They could also undertake a self-assessment to support improved engagement with inclusion health groups (see here).
  • Services should be person-centred, and trauma informed so that people feel safe, welcome, listened to and understood. Here is a video on trauma informed communication skills and an overview of training available here.
  • Services need to recognise the importance of developing trust and trusting relationships, as these are at the heart of healing and recovery. Ideally with the continuity of care with the same provider.
  • Services should  proactively support people with literacy, language, and cognition difficulties.
  • Primary care services should consider how they can take care to people with the highest need to enable trust to be developed. For example, enhanced services undertaking in-reach into hostels can be highly successful in increasing engagement. Reaching out to frontline staff in homeless services, who often feel stigmatised, can be a first step in acknowledging the support they are providing and explore how they can be better supported.

It is our duty to find and care for those in our community who are excluded and marginalised and advocate for their needs. We need to embed inclusive care and assertive advocacy as core to our work.

References

  1. Liu, M., Luong, L., Lachaud, J., Edalati, H., Reeves, A., & Hwang, S. W. (2021). Adverse childhood experiences and related outcomes among adults experiencing homelessness: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Public Health.
  2. Bennet, M.S. (2017), ‘Connecting Paradigms: A Trauma-Informed & Neurobiological Framework for Motivational Interviewing Implementation’, Bennett Innovation Group, Denver.
  3. Rogans-Watson, R., Shulman, C., Lewer, D., Armstrong, M., & Hudson, B. (2020). Premature frailty, geriatric conditions and multimorbidity among people experiencing homelessness: a cross-sectional observational study in a London hostel. Housing, Care and Support.
  4. Armstrong, M., Shulman, C., Hudson, B., Stone, P., & Hewett, N. (2021). Barriers and facilitators to accessing health and social care services for people living in homeless hostels: a qualitative study of the experiences of hostel staff and residents in UK hostels. BMJ open11(10), e053185.

Inclusion health and COVID-19

e.schaessens13 May 2020

Authors: Chantal Edge, Al Story, Andrew Hayward

As the UK continues to wage war against COVID-19 the news is awash with stories speculating when vaccines and diagnostics will become available, and when life can return to ‘normal’ for the general population. Yet amongst these reports we hear very little about society’s most marginalised groups. What has the UK been doing to protect and support the most vulnerable – homeless, prisoners, drug users, and what problems do they foresee for these groups in the near future? We asked the UCL Collaborative Centre for Inclusion Health (CCIH) what they’ve been up to in support of pandemic response.

What is the UCL Collaborative Centre for Inclusion Health?

The UCL Collaborative Centre for Inclusion Health (CCIH) was set up by a multidisciplinary team of researchers, experts with lived experience and frontline professionals who are dedicated to reducing health inequity amongst socially excluded groups. Inclusion Health is a service, research, and policy agenda that aims to prevent and redress health and social inequities among the most vulnerable and excluded populations such as homeless, prisoners and drug users. The Centre is co-directed by UCL’s Professor Andrew Hayward and Dr Alistair Story, Clinical lead of the London Find&Treat Service.

COVID-19 and socially excluded groups

Homeless accommodation

At CCIH we were very aware early on in the outbreak that excluded groups would be highly vulnerable. There was a well-timed conference – 2020: A Decade for Inclusion – on homeless and inclusion health justbefore the UK went into lockdown, which we used to raise awareness across the homeless sector about what needed to be done to prevent outbreaks, particularly within overcrowded hostels, night shelters and day centres. We were able to secure a lot of support from different agencies, for example, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government set up an initiative to place those living on the streets in hotels and to close down the large hostels in which people share dormitory-style accommodation. This was achieved incredibly rapidly, over the course of about a week. We’ve also done a lot of work to raise awareness in settings which remain vulnerable to outbreaks, including improving social distancing by encouraging closure of communal areas, and strict rules about social distancing measures. We’ve been able to bring in drug treatment services and addiction services for people with very challenging addiction issues. A pan-London methadone-prescribing service has been established so that homeless people can get access to substitution treatment for addictions much more easily than they would have done on the streets. This video tells the story about one such homeless hotel in Shrewsbury.

We’ve also established what we’re calling a COVID-CARE hotel in East London for homeless people who are diagnosed as having the disease. They are referred from the streets, hotels, hostels, Secondary Care and A&E departments across the capital to be clinically monitored in a safe infection control environment. The accommodation is provided by GLA, while the medical staff are provided by the UCLH Find&Treat team working with Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) – this is the first time MSF have deployed in the UK, a video about this work can be found here.

Another aspect of our work has been to establish a surveillance system with UCLH Find & Treat and led by Miriam Bullock, through which we survey hostels for COVID-19 control and social distancing measures, suspected COVID-19 cases and related hospitalisations or deaths. This surveillance system triggers telephone triage and advice from the Find&Treat team who are outreaching same day testing to homeless people across the city with three outreach teams.

Prisons

Public Health England and the prison service have published guidance on their management strategies for COVID-19 in prisons and have as yet managed to avoid the ‘explosive outbreaks’ predicted at the start of the pandemic. Yet healthcare delivery in prisons remains challenging now that inmates are confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day and many staff are off sick or isolating with COVID-19 symptoms.

One of the CCIH PhD fellows, Chantal Edge, has paused her work on local prison telemedicine implementation in Surrey, to go to the central NHS England Health and Justice team to lead on the rapid deployment of prison telemedicine nationally. Telemedicine will be scaled up across 135 secure sites in England including prisons, immigration removal centres and secure children’s homes. Approvals have also been secured from the prison service to deploy NHS 4G enabled tablets in prisons to support the telemedicine work, a ground-breaking change seeing as mobile devices are traditionally strictly prohibited in prison settings.  Telemedicine will remain in prisons after the pandemic and support improved access and quality of healthcare services for prisoners, so in this way the pandemic has driven forward innovation.

Migrant health

Ines Campos Matos, who has a joint appointment between PHE and CCIH has led PHE’s investigation of the high levels of COVID in BAME groups showing how poverty is compounding this inequality.

Advocacy in the media

We have also been working closely with the press to advocate for inclusion health groups including articles on prisons, and homeless hotels and GP surgeries.

Looking to the future

As COVID-19 decreases in the general population following lockdown, we’re moving to a stage of continued vigilance. This is going to be really important because there are likely to be more transmissions when the lockdown is eased. So far, we have avoided large outbreaks of COVID-19 in the homeless community and in prisons. In other countries such as the USA up to half of people in big, night-shelter-type hostels are being infected, our screening finds only about 3 or 4% of homeless people have been infected. Prisons in countries such as Italy and the USA have also seen huge outbreaks, whereas cases in England remain controlled.

There is a concern that people will begin to think the outbreak is over and will start to relax both the social distancing across society but also in the homeless hostels. As the numbers decrease, there will be pressure to close down the COVID-CARE facility and the hotels. Prisons will likely need to keep measures in place to isolate the vulnerable and enforce social distancing for many months, the mental health consequences of this enforced isolation remain as yet unknown.

We’re planning to launch a major health needs assessment (HNA) led by Dr Binta Sultan, to systematically identify the health needs of people within the hotels. We’ll have 38 clinicians doing telephone interviews, and have established referral pathways into mental health, sexual health and drug and alcohol services. We’ll be screening everybody for hepatitis C, then starting people on treatment with the aim of completion while they’re at the hotel. This could have a major impact on the transmission of hepatitis C in the homeless population. We’re hoping to do the same thing for latent TB infection. The HNA will also identify people who need shielding, therefore requiring their own self-contained accommodation. This will move people up the priority list for permanent housing and will help with advocating for their needs.

During this pandemic, many of us are having to change what we do and prioritise everything towards this response. It’s too serious and awful to feel any excitement about the research: it feels more like a war. We’re trying to use every resource and opportunity that we have – and every waking hour – to work out what we can do to help in the fight against COVID-19. It is rewarding to feel that you’re able to make a difference, but it’s heart-breaking to see how terrible it has become.

Chantal Edge is an NIHR Clinical Doctoral Research Fellow and Specialty Registrar in Public Health, researching the use of telemedicine for hospital appointments in prison. Dr Al Story leads the Find&Treat Outreach Service based at UCLH and is Co-Director of the UCL Collaborative Centre for Inclusion Health. Professor Andrew Hayward is the Director of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care and Co-Director of the UCL Collaborative Centre for Inclusion Health.