What is peer support?

Peer support has become increasingly popular in recent years. Traditionally, healthcare has been about visiting the doctor’s surgery or going to hospital, but peer support recognises that patients and their families are mostly ‘on their own’ between these formal visits.

In peer support, those who share a particular condition help each other, based upon their shared experience. It can involve 1 on 1 sessions, or meeting in small groups, and can take place face-to-face or electronically via the internet/telephone. This toolkit focuses on face-to-face group support in diabetes, though many of the lessons will apply to other kinds of support.

Most of us are aware of the importance of the social contact we have with friends and family but they may not fully understand what it is like to live with and manage a particular health condition. The idea behind peer support is that others who experience a condition may be the best people to share experiences and coping strategies with. They will be familiar with the emotional and social difficulties it can cause and be more likely to know how to get help from health services.

These are the aspects underlying the model of peer support that we will work with in this toolkit. They are described in more detail in the box below:

Three key aspects of peer support

1. Managing day to day living with diabetes – Peers share their experiences with diet, physical activity and taking their medication in helping others figure out how to manage their condition and understand the guidance and advice provided by healthcare professionals. They can also share useful information, such as where to buy healthy foods or pleasant and convenient locations for exercise.
2. Social and emotional support – Through empathetic listening and encouragement, peers are able to support each other in coping with social or emotional barriers and to stay motivated to reach their goals.
3. Navigating health services – Peer support can help bridge the gap between patients and healthcare professionals and encourage people to seek out clinical care when it is appropriate. Peer support is not clinical advice or formal health education, but it can help people navigate health services.


What peer support is not
Peer support can get confused with patient education programmes which are set up around a certain condition. However, these are more about learning new knowledge than support. It can also get confused with counselling, but peer support is less about exploring inner psychological and emotional issues and more about peers sharing experiences and supporting each other.

Peer support is not a substitute for a professional health service. Your regular health professional (e.g. GP) will always be your first port of call when you have a medical problem.

A facilitator is someone with a particular condition who uses simple listening and problem-solving skills, in combination with learned knowledge and lived experience to assist people who are their peers and also have that condition.

Peer means ‘equal’. No-one who takes part in peer support should have more authority or say than anyone else, regardless of whether they take on more of an organising role as a facilitator or are peers.

Principle of peer support:
People are usually capable of solving their own problems if given a chance.

Philosophy of peer support:
Most of the time, people are best served by a relationship that supports their own abilities and decision making.

The goal of a facilitator:
To help peers find their own solutions to their own problems not to solve their problems for them.

The main tools of a facilitator:
The main tools are active listening skills, problem solving skills, training, materials and experience.

Information for organisers
There are various definitions of peer support. One of the earlier definitions was provided by Dennis: ‘Peer support, within the health care context, is the provision of emotional, appraisal, and informational assistance by a created social network member who possesses experiential knowledge of a specific behaviour or stressor and similar characteristics as the target population, to address a health-related issue of a potentially or actually stressed focal person’.
The original paper can be found here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12605954. You might also find a recent paper by Simmons et al. (2013) on the concept of peer support useful: http://www.futuremedicine.com/doi/abs/10.2217/dmt.12.80