How volunteers can help to improve patient discharge

18th March 2024

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By Sara Miles, Helpforce Programme Manager

It’s important that patients can get home, once they’re well. One of our expert programme managers shares the top tips about how volunteering can help make this happen, drawing on lessons from working with our partners in hospital trusts and the community.

We know that delayed discharge is a huge challenge facing the NHS, estimated to cost £900 million every year. Patients who stay in hospital when they are ready to be discharged are at higher risk of hospital-acquired infections and of losing mobility and independence. Delays in discharging patients also reduce the availability of hospital beds, leading to delays in ambulance handovers and admitting patients from A&E. We hear from leaders that, locally, 15-20% of their hospital beds on any one day are occupied by patients who are medically fit to be discharged.

Volunteering leads and teams are well placed to deliver volunteer roles that can support patient flow and aid the discharge process. Volunteers can be deployed in roles that help to reduce length of stay, speed up the time taken to discharge someone who is medically fit or provide emotional support to patients who are anxious about being discharged.

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A volunteer at Kingston Hospital supporting the patient to drink

Length of stay

Roles such as activity and mobility volunteers or mealtime companions ensure that patients have enough to eat and drink to aid their recovery and stay as active as possible while in hospital. Our evaluation of the role at Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust found that activity support and mobility volunteers can support patients to maintain their usual level of mobility while they are in hospital and improve their mood.

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An Emergency Department Response volunteer making notes

Patient flow

Response volunteers can help to speed up the discharge process by up to 44 minutes and 62% of staff recognise that these volunteers contribute to reducing pressure on staff on wards. A response volunteer is trained to complete a selection of pre-identified activities across the hospital site to support with patient flow such as: helping patients to pack; transferring patients from wards to the discharge lounge; or completing ‘To Take Out’ (TTO) deliveries from the pharmacy. TTO deliveries involve the collection of prescriptions required for patients who are ready to be discharged from hospital. 29 minutes of time is released per TTO collection – freeing up staff to spend more time on clinical tasks, to support more patients or to feel less rushed.


Understanding discharge delays

At Helpforce we support trusts to review and understand their data and why they may have discharge delays. We explore the data for those patients who are medically fit to be discharged and the reasons they have not yet been discharged – are they waiting for a prescription, are they waiting for someone to collect them or are they waiting for transport? Understanding this is fundamental to understanding what type of volunteering service or services would be of benefit.

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Helpforce met with partners from H4All, the Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the Confederation Hillingdon, 3ST and Cole Union PCN in early November to finalise more joint projects that aim to improve health outcomes of people in North West London

The role of community services

Patient discharge is one of those areas where there is a clear cross over between the hospital and community setting. Volunteering teams can also consider how they build local partnerships that will support with discharge.

In Hillingdon, we have supported the development of a contact centre where trained volunteers deliver comfort calls to patients. These calls will help ensure people are coping well at home, supporting their continued recovery, which will help prevent avoidable readmissions ot hospital.

The community support has been led by, H4All, whose volunteers will call patients up to 72 hours after discharge. The aim is to improve patients' confidence to cope at home and provide referrals or signposting to enable patients to access further information and support. Because H4All are already embedded in the community, referrals to other services are seamless and often volunteers are referring to services that are also run by H4All.

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Helpforce support developing volunteering services

Through our adopt and adapt service we help organisations establish volunteer services to reduce operational pressures. These specialist courses provide health and care organisations with extensive learning and support to roll out impactful volunteering models. The service also gives those participating in it access to our impact measurement tools developed by our insight and impact team. This will help to demonstrate the difference these volunteering roles are making and can help make the case for further investment.

Are you interested in finding out more?

We are holding a discharge webinar with the Department of Health and Social Care on Wednesday 27 March from 11.00 to 12.00. Come along to learn about different discharge projects run by Helpforce and other organisations and ask us any questions.

Register to attend the webinar here.