Writing about social care

As we change our name to include ‘care’ and place more emphasis on our social care offer, this guidance offers advice on good practice and common issues when writing about social care research.

It is about people

Social care is for everyone and anyone can need care and support at any time in their lives.

Social care exists to support people to live a fulfilling life. We should talk about people. People who draw on social care support and services, people who need care and support, people who work in local authorities and social care organisations. Bring it back to people. 

Service users

This is a divisive term and there are other options available. 

These terms can be used as alternatives to 'service users':

  • people who need care and support
  • people who draw on social care support
  • people who use social care services

This blog from Think Personal Act Local sums up the 'service user' issue and indicates why you may want to consider using alternative language:

“Care professionals use this routinely. But many of the people who the term aims to describe dislike it intensely. (Not least because people who need services don’t always have access to them, so they are not necessarily ‘using’ anything at all, while their need remains unmet.) People generally prefer to be described as ‘people who use (or need) services’. The point is that we are all people first and foremost, and language should reflect this.”


There are 6.5 million unpaid carers who provide support to a partner, family member, friend or neighbour who is ill, struggling or disabled and could not manage without this help. This is distinct from a care worker or practitioner, who is paid to support people.

Social care practitioners

Those who work in social care are paid professionals, use terms such as ‘social care practitioners’ or ‘social care professional’ when describing them, or their job titles such as social workers, occupational therapist.  

The term ‘social care workforce’ is a commonly used one and generally accepted. The term ‘staff’ should be avoided as there are a lot on zero hours contracts.

The term ‘caregiver’ is used in the US and other countries so may appear in social care writing. If writing for a more international audience it may be useful to use the term carer (or caregiver).

The social care research community tends to avoid the term ‘expertise’ as many workers are practitioners and the term ‘expertise’ suggests a hierarchy.


Social care is often provided in people’s homes (termed as home care or domiciliary care), community settings including day centres or nursing or care homes (often residential). These are not clinical settings or NHS settings.

Excluding health research language

One of the key things to consider when writing for social care audiences, is the terms you use which may make them feel excluded from the information or the discussion.

Use of the terms ‘patients’ ‘clinical’ ‘healthcare’ are immediate negatives for a social care reader. Use of these terms in pages and throughout copy can make social care readers feel the information or the product is not relevant for them, even when it often is. 

If a project or funding call does not immediately say social care, please make it explicitly clear in the text that social care proposals or social care involvement is encouraged and that social care is part of the remit. 

The term ‘patients and the public’ has been used in the past to encompass people who draw on social care support, however it does not quite capture the necessary people aspect of social care terminology. Where possible, try to include ‘people who draw on social care support’.

Social care research vs health research conducted in a social care setting

A key challenge when starting to identify social care research is the blurring of the boundaries between health and social care research. Care homes are a prime example of a social care setting where care is provided, but that does not mean all studies and research conducted in care homes is social care research. For example, this case study about Understanding continence care in care home patients living with dementia is primarily a health research study. Whereas this example of virtual quizzes reducing loneliness is a social care research study. Although both take place in social care settings, the focus and the outcomes for people involved is much different.

Social care research focuses on social care outcomes, whether this is a change to practice, methods of support or other outcomes. It does not focus on a health outcome.

Social care research

Although the name change incorporates ‘and care’ it is acceptable to say ‘health and social care research’ when referring to both, if there is room and you wish to be specific.

Much of our work is focused on adult social care in England. The remits and responsibilities in the devolved nations is slightly different, particularly around children’s social care. Be careful not to say ‘social care across the country’ or ‘social care across the UK’ if you are actually describing adult social care in England.

It should be noted that research is not new to social care. The NIHR is seeking to improve care through research, not teaching people who work in social care how to deliver care.

Children and young people

Generally, the delivery of social care is divided between services for adults and those for children and young people. Previously, the NIHR has focused on adult social care research as this was an under-served area. Our remit of research is expanding to include more children and young people's social care.

We have funded and continue to fund children’s social care research through our Health and Social Care Delivery research programme. The Research for Social Care call will now also fund research on social care policy and practice relating to children and young people.

When writing about social care, it is important to understand this distinction and that a practitioner audience will work with adults or children and young people. The definition of scope lies at the programme or call level, and it is often necessary to point out whether potential funding could cover projects in adult or children and young people’s social care, or both.

Glossary and terminology

Definitions of common social care terms such person-centred, care plan, care navigator and safeguarding can be found in these useful glossary pages:

Related pages