Could volunteers help restore public satisfaction for the NHS? The short answer is Yes

18th April 2023

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Written by Mark Lever, Helpforce CEO

It was not a huge surprise when we learned about public dissatisfaction for the NHS from the NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey reported in March, with overall satisfaction with the NHS falling to 29 per cent. This is the lowest level ever recorded and must ring the alarm bell for us all about the state of our health and social care system.

The survey highlighted three key reasons why people are dissatisfied with the NHS, namely waiting time for appointments, staff shortages, and a view that the NHS does not receive enough funding from the government. Since then, there have been numerous conversations on solutions to restore public confidence in the NHS. And yet, none of them mentioned ‘volunteering.’ To me, this is disappointing.

Three years ago, over 750,000 volunteers stepped up during the pandemic to help roll out the Covid-19 vaccination programme at speed. Volunteers helped to end lock down and get the country back on its feet. Volunteers helped the vulnerable by giving them well-being calls to tackle loneliness and isolation or giving them practical support, such as collecting their medications or do grocery shopping. The impact that volunteers made towards our health and care system throughout the pandemic was well evidenced, and yet, they are still not part of national conversations when our health and care system is facing immense challenges. This is short-sighted.

Health and care leaders need to integrate volunteering into their solutions if they aim to restore public confidence in the NHS and our health and social care system. Here is why:

1 – Volunteers can help people on the waiting list

More than 9 million people are now on the waiting list for their hospital and GP treatment (an increase from 7.2 million from the end of last year). True, volunteers are unable to create more appointments for patients, but they can help to make the wait more comfortable, giving patients the assurance that they are not forgotten. Helpforce has been working with several NHS Trusts to roll out the Waiting Well programme as part of the charity’s Back to Health campaign, where volunteers at 22 NHS Trusts provide phone calls to patients on the waiting lists with updates, answer questions and share information on the necessary preparation for their upcoming hospital visit. In this way they minimise anxiety and offer companionship.

2 – Volunteers can join the workforce

Trained and experienced volunteers can also end up becoming NHS staff members, helping to fill vacancies and ease staff shortages. For example, we run the Volunteer to Career programme, as part of our Back to Health campaign. It helps NHS recruitment and staffing levels by identifying pathways for volunteers to develop their careers in health and care. What makes the programme stand out is that the volunteers receive focused support from workforce and clinical leads. They not only benefit from first-hand experience of working in the health and care environment – but also the right clinical, wellbeing and career support. Emerging results have shown that 73 per cent of volunteers who took part in the programme secured employment or further education/training in health and care.

3 – Volunteers can enhance patient experience and add extra value to the health and care packages

Through our work with over 70 NHS organisations, patient feedback has consistently told us that patients value the support from volunteers, and how volunteers helped them feel less anxious and that they were shown care or compassion.

Not only do volunteers make a difference to patients on an individual level, but they can also become a conduit between health and social care. Very often we hear how patients who are fit to leave cannot be discharged from hospital because their care package at home is not ready for them. Volunteers can play a big part in this through helping patients to settle in at home more smoothly. Volunteers can help with medication collection, and link patients up with local services. Volunteers can also identify any gaps in appropriate aftercare.

We must act now

Volunteers are an underused branch of health and care support. They are not a “magic bullet,” but they can certainly help to restore public confidence in the NHS and our health and social care system.

We need the government, local authorities, health and care leaders, charities, and community organisations to work together to put in place well-designed and effectively managed volunteer initiatives. Until then, we can unlock this massive, underused asset and help to restore public confidence in our health and care system.