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Adapting to a global pandemic: Kingston Hospital’s transition to virtual volunteering

Tags: Article, Toolkit, Case Study, Blog

16th March 2021



Written by Laura Shalev-Greene, Head of Volunteering, Kingston Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

Volunteering lies at the heart of everything we do here at Kingston Hospital. Last year, before the pandemic, we had over 450 volunteers working across 30 different roles playing an integral part in the successful delivery of care to our patients. When the pandemic struck back in March, we had to make the difficult decision to suspend all active volunteering roles, effective immediately. With COVID-19 posing an unprecedented set of challenges to the possibility of in-person volunteering, we had to go back to the drawing board and develop a new model of volunteering that was both safe and effective.

We decided to put forward a new volunteering model that would mark the transition from physical to virtual volunteering. Getting volunteers mobilised to take on COVID-19 roles in the community on behalf of the hospital was crucial to the continual delivery of vital care to our patients. Consequently, since March we have developed four key initiatives to continue supporting patients safely:

  • Virtual dementia volunteering,

  • Physiotherapy support,

  • Discharge support service and

  • Partnering service with Macmillan Cancer Support.

Some of these involved existing services that have transitioned online while others are entirely new initiatives.

Virtual Dementia Volunteering:

With the first of our initiatives, we aimed to utilise our six of our pre-existing dementia volunteers who were doing therapeutic activity on our wards prior to COVID-19. Wanting to keep our dementia volunteers connected to the patients they were helping; we needed a communication platform that was both secure and accessible to use. Using an app called aTouchAway, created by Aetonix, volunteers could connect to patients securely and successfully carry out a range of helpful therapies.

The app functions much in the same way as Zoom yet crucially prevents the exchange of contact details and encrypts any text messages that are sent through the platform. In addition, any files shared through aTouchAway are stored temporarily and expire after 72 hours to protect confidentiality. Some of the activities performed by our volunteers included reminiscence therapy, playing music to patients, and hosting group music concerts.

Hear volunteer Thurvaraha speak about her experiences of being a virtual Dementia Volunteer

Running this programme twice a week for an hour, we have seen enormous benefits to patients, who have been able to continue receiving therapy that would otherwise be impossible without the aid of digital communication. We are currently supporting approximately 10 patients a week using aTouchAway.

Kyle Tovey, Therapeutic Activities Assistant, said: “ Introducing the virtual volunteers onto our elderly care wards has been incredibly heart-warming, to see the sincere communication from our highly skilled, motivated and very caring team of volunteers has been inspiring. The volunteers have not only been integrated in the daily activity programme but have also been leading with ideas and support to the activity team on the wards.

“The patient engages very well with the virtual environment and very often finds additional excitement and joy from this digital form. Patients pass comments on the benefits of these sessions and those who are in the Hospital setting for longer regularly recall these sessions and look forward to the next.”

Physiotherapy Support:

Alongside supporting our dementia volunteers, the aTouchAway app has additionally been fantastic in aiding our volunteers who support patients undergoing physiotherapy. Trained in a range of chair-based and bed-based activities, our ‘Gentle Movement’ volunteers can effectively guide patients through various exercises using the app. Holding sessions twice a day, our volunteers take a leaf out of Joe Wicks’ book and provide lots of encouragement and motivation to get our patients moving. Reaching 15 patients a week, we have supported over 90 patients since January with this programme.

”I have been impressed by the volunteers’ creativity, patience and skill in overcoming additional challenges that come with communicating with patients (often with cognitive and hearing impairments) via a screen. Volunteers have helped the ward staff during COVID by keeping our patients active and lifting their spirits. We are very grateful for the time they give our patients and for their all-encompassing care and positivity.” Juliet Butler, Care of the Elderly Physiotherapist

Claire, a Gentle Movement Volunteer said: “The role is really fulfilling as I get to work with a wide range of patients, with varying levels of physical fitness and enjoy seeing them progress through the exercises. It feels good that I am helping people from my local community to stay fit and assist with their recovery.”

Kingston volunteer
Two of our wonderful Virtual Dementia Volunteers connecting with patients via A Touch Away

Discharge Support Service:

Our third initiative has been aimed at seeing the successful transition of our Discharge Support Service to an entirely remote programme. Prior to the pandemic the Discharge Support Service was initiated at bedside, almost at the point of admission. As soon as a patient’s estimated discharge date was identified, volunteers would be connected to the patient and would proceed to carrying out a holistic needs’ assessment, looking at ‘safe, well and warm’ as the ultimate criteria for going home.

Our objective for this service is ultimately to prevent deconditioning when a patient goes home. The programme also vitally connects them to the community as well as local services that can help prevent deconditioning and social isolation, improving patients’ wellbeing. This service has since been transitioned to a telephone-based service, with 30 patients currently being supported by nine discharge support volunteers.

Aware of the potential issues surrounding data protection and information governance, we have done a lot of work as a Trust to identify how patient data is accessed and ensure it is used safely and securely. Volunteers are given bespoke training on data protection and additionally complete the e-learning Healthcare programme. They also participate in monthly supervision with guest speakers including a local community dietician, falls prevention lead and other guests relevant to the service and their learning as volunteers.

The service is provided to patients for a total of six weeks at which point they are discharged. Following the programme our patients should now be connected to a range of voluntary local organisations, ones that are going to support and enhance their wellbeing when the hospital draws away.

A patient said to us: “Just wonderful support for the community. Very impressed with follow up service. Cannot recommend highly enough”

Partner Service: (with Macmillan Cancer Support)

Finally, our fourth initiative has been in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support, who have supported our volunteer cancer partnering service. Previously, the Trust hosted a Macmillan ‘drop-in’ centre, primarily an information service that also signposted patients to complementary therapies, counselling, and benefits advice. This programme has now successfully been transitioned to a telephone service, one where volunteers can safely deliver advice and refer patients to the services provided by Macmillan.

Utilising a system provided by Carritech Horizon, patients and volunteers’ contact details are protected. Carritech Horizon’s programme creates a hospital telephone number that volunteers can twin their phones with from home. Volunteers are now on hand to offer patients emotional support and a listening ear during challenging times.

Lorna Smith, Lead Lung Cancer CNS said: “I’m really pleased that the Macmillan Cancer Information & Support Service has gone online and is now available to my patients as a helpline. This is a really important service for anyone affected by cancer in need of a listening ear, support or accredited information in a moment of crisis or concern. This has been particularly helpful during the covid 19 pandemic where patients may have been feeling isolated. Having contact with someone via the telephone has been hugely comforting for patients.”


Given the success of our virtual volunteering transition, we will be continuing with our current initiatives for the foreseeable future. As pressures brought on by the pandemic hopefully begin to ease in the upcoming months, we will look to incorporate an element of face-to-face volunteering into each of the individual programmes. Looking further ahead, we hope to continue increasing the impact of volunteering by acting on the demands brought on by the pandemic through making our volunteering model more accessible to a wider range of people and increasing levels of engagement.