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Virtual Volunteering and Digital Support for Patients at St Pancras Hospital - Central and Northwest London NHS FT (CNWL)

Tags: Article, Case Study, Blog

19th March 2021

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Written by Nuria De Miguel, Volunteer Services Manager, Central and Northwest London NHS FT.

At St Pancras Rehabilitation Unit SPRU, our focus is largely on geriatric and psychiatric care. Subsequently, we knew the pandemic was going to put an enormous strain on our services, making physical contact between patients and family members impossible. As the first wave of COVID-19 approached early last year, we needed to quickly ensure that our patients were not left isolated and at risk.

Since the first wave back in March, we have initiated a number of volunteering programmes to ease the pressures brought on by the pandemic, with the flagship being our Digital Befriending Service, a programme that was launched largely with the help of an individual volunteer. Thanks to the work of our tireless volunteers, we have had huge success in aiding some of our most vulnerable patients during these extraordinary times. Their work has been invaluable.

Digital Befrienders

Before the pandemic, the volunteering model that was in place at St Pancras Rehabilitation Unit operated through a largely generic ward system that saw volunteers doing different tasks on the ward. When the first lockdown happened — restricting family members from coming to the hospital to see their loved ones — we asked ourselves what we were going to do. As a physical rehabilitation hospital, most of our patients are elderly people who suffer from a range of problems such as strokes and injuries caused by falls. Many of these patients did not have anyone they could talk to or were unable to use a smartphone to contact family members. The Trust distributed some iPads to different sites, including 15 delivered to us, that patients could use to connect to family members and friends. Unfortunately, we initially lacked technical support and many of our patients simply could not operate their devices. It was obvious that we needed to reconsider our offer to implement a volunteering programme that would provide patients with the technical support they needed, ensuring they could connect with their loved ones.

Our subsequent Digital Befriending Plus Ward Assistant Service arose, in part, thanks to the efforts of one absolute star volunteer. The volunteer had a strong background in IT, and due to them being made redundant pre-pandemic “a happy coincidence” as they say, had plenty of time to offer to our hospital. They effectively put everything in place for us, setting up a system for using the tablets and starting all the necessary digital processes that would ensure patients would be able to use their devices. This enabled the creation of a new role, our digital befrienders. With a more specific set of responsibilities than our previous general ward assistants, these volunteers were there to provide support and company to our patients. We put a diary system in place that allowed people to request a call to be made to a patient or vice versa where patients could themselves request a call. These volunteers are there for a minimum of three hours (most volunteers do more than three hours in a shift) and operate on a rota system to ensure we have a constant level of support.

While at the beginning of this scheme, volunteers were often left to their own devices after their induction and training and occasionally needed guidance, we now have in place a much stronger process. We have an online induction programme, completed by all volunteers, that goes through both the role and how our hospital operates. In addition, we have an in-person tutorial for the volunteers on the first day, involving training on PPE and how to safely volunteer. We are now budding up existing volunteers with new volunteers for that extra peer support. Finally, as with any other of our volunteer roles, volunteers go through several checks, including risk assessments, DBS checks, occupational health assessments and regular lateral flow tests. We additionally have a Microsoft Teams group for the volunteers, where they are able to coordinate with a dedicated team leader, schedule calls, and consult a task planner. I am happy to say that we have had no issues relating to information governance since rolling out this volunteering programme.

This is the feedback from one of the family members:

“I would like to relay our sincere thanks and appreciation to all the volunteers who have helped us by communicating with my mother during her time spent in St Pancras hospital. I understand how stretched you must be trying to accommodate all the patients and families wishes. You are all silent workers who really deserve so much more for your volunteering and caring attitude. Thank you again for all your hard work.”

Additional roles

Alongside our flagship Digital Befriender plus Ward Assistant role, we also have additional volunteering programmes designed to ease the pandemic’s strain on our patients’ and their carers mental wellbeing. The Check-In and Chat service sees volunteers befriend service users and carers over the phone, providing a friendly chat a week during eight weeks. These volunteers offer companionship to those who may be isolated as a result of having limited contact with others, whilst encouraging and signposting them to other services in their communities. We usually define these calls as a “friendly chat that you will have with a neighbour over the garden fence”. While this is not a clinical role, these calls have been incredibly helpful in assessing the wellbeing of our service users . Our volunteers are there to provide that listening ear to those who may want to open up and share their experiences and feelings. They are also there to provide support and information about the potential resources that are available to them.

This has been an incredibly popular programme, with almost two hundred people, between service users and carers, using the service provided by our trained volunteers. Since January 2021 we have also opened it up to the unpaid carers of CNWL service users, proving as useful and successful for them. Our volunteers, of course, go through all the expected checks and complete a thorough training day provided by CNWL Recovery College that’s hosted over Zoom. They are provided with a smartphone (after a User Acceptance agreements is signed) to use in their weekly calls. . Alongside our Digital Befriending role, this programme has been enormously helpful in assessing and assisting the wellbeing of our service users and carers. Without the help of volunteers, it would be incredibly challenging to reach out to all of our service users and offer this extra support.

A service user said to us: "When you call it’s like you’re here in my living room with me."
A chatter said: "I totally enjoyed doing this role. I chatted to a lovely lady, daily for 10 days. My patient was open, honest and full of stories. It was a pleasure to get to know her."

Looking Ahead

Given the success of these volunteering programmes, we are looking into expanding these services so they are available to more of our hospitals. In particular, we are assessing how we can best export our Digital Befriending Plus Ward Assistant role to other hospitals while also teaching more volunteers and service users how to use smart devices. More recently, we have set up an additional volunteering role that involves volunteers helping patients and carers getting online and using technology. These Digital Volunteers have been fantastic in getting carers digitally engaged, enabling them to send emails, use social media and browse the internet, all while demonstrating how best to stay safe and secure online.
I want to thank Helpforce for all the incredible support they have provided over the last year. The volunteering programmes they have supported have been lifelines for so many during the pandemic, allowing vulnerable and isolated people to stay connected with others.