What is self-care and why is it good for people and the NHS?

Subscribe to the Self Care Forum e-newsletter for updates, resources, ideas and news about the latest self-care activities. 

What is self-care?

The Self-Care Continuum

The above continuum illustrates the sliding scale of self-care, starting with the individual responsibility people take in making daily choices about their lifestyle, such as brushing their teeth, eating healthily or choosing to do exercise.

Moving along the scale, people can often take care of themselves when they have common conditions such as sore throats, coughs etc, for example by using over-the-counter medicines.  The same is true for long term conditions where people often self-manage without intervention from a health professional.  People with a long term condition spend on average 4 hours a year with a health professional, which means the remaining 8756 hours are spent self-managing.

At the opposite end of the continuum is “major trauma” where responsibility for care is entirely in the hands of the healthcare professionals, until the start of recovery when self-care can begin again.

The NHS can support people to self-care at any point during the continuum.  Self-care is not no care. 

Why is self-care good for people?

Empowering people with the confidence and knowledge to look after themselves when they can, and access health services when they need to, gives them greater control of their own health and encourages healthy behaviours that help prevent ill health in the long-term.

In many cases people can take care of their common conditions, reducing the number of surgery visits enabling health professionals to focus on caring for higher risk patients, such as those with co-morbidities, the very young and the elderly. 

More cost-effective use of stretched NHS resources allows money to be spent where it’s most needed, helping to secure better health outcomes in the population.

This will ultimately ensure the long-term sustainability of the NHS.

The evidence

Research by the consumer health association, PAGB found that education is key to increasing self-care with 4 in 5 (83 per cent) of those surveyed saying we need more education to encourage people to take a more proactive approach. 

The research also found that 2 in 5 adults (39 per cent) requested a GP appointment for common health conditions including colds, a blocked nose, insect bites and stings and headaches; with 8 per cent of people visiting A&E for conditions such as dandruff, acne, head lice and other non-urgent and relatively minor health conditions. 

There is clearly more that we can do to support people to better take care of their own health. 

Self-care helps people and the NHS

According to the Nuffield Trust, more than 15 million people (over a quarter of the population) in England have a long-term health condition, or a health problem that cannot be cured but can be controlled with medication or other therapies.  

And, care of people with long-term conditions accounts for about 70% of the money spent on health and social care in England.

The 4 main types of long-term conditions are cardiovascular disease, cancers, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes. 

Importantly, whilst the prevalence of people with long-term conditions increases with age, contracting a long-term condition is not inevitable.  In fact. many long-term health conditions are preventable by practising self-care and adopting healthy lifestyle choices such as:

  • not smoking
  • taking regular exercise
  • limiting alcohol use
  • eating healthily

By taking better care of our health, choosing positive lifestyle habits we can live a healthier life for ourselves and our families while also protecting the long-term health of the NHS, ensuring it will be there when we actually need it.  

Ways health professionals can help to change behaviour

Often just simple changes aimed at meeting the needs of local communities can be very effective at encouraging increased self-care.

These include giving service-users the information they need to care for their common ailments and to make healthy lifestyle choices, signposting people to the right local services and outreach work to provide health advice in non-traditional settings such as pubs, libraries and job centres.

During NHS interactions, involving service-users in their care through shared decision making is considered a successful approach.  And, the Self Care Forum’s self-care fact sheets were produced with this in mind, helping health professionals empower people during consultations. 

Also advisable is getting involved in national awareness events such as No Smoking Day, Men’s Health Week, Self-Care Week, Know Your Numbers Week.  This can help to bring attention to ways people can help themselves take better care of their physical health and mental wellbeing.