How volunteers play a vital part in closing the gap on health inequality

20th July 2023

Health inequalities

Written by Mark Lever, Helpforce CEO

It is shocking and concerning that inequalities in health have worsened (The King’s Fund, 2022).

On average, a 60-year-old woman in the most deprived area of England will live with poor health for more than half of her life (43.6 years) compared with 46 per cent (41 years) for a woman of the same age in the wealthiest areas. (Health Foundation, 2022).

A man who lives in London, but in the poorest borough such as Barking and Dagenham, is expected to live until 73 while a man living in the most affluent part of Kensington and Chelsea is expected to live until 90 – an 18-year gap for people who live in the same city! (Evening Standard, Nov 22)

COVID-19 mortality for people of Black African or Black Caribbean ethnicity in the first half of 2020 was two to two and a half times higher than for people of White ethnicity. (ONS, 2020)

This stark inequality, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, frankly, is a national disgrace. The NHS is right when it sees tackling health inequalities as one of its most important priorities for this decade. Yet, the NHS still hasn’t mobilised fully one of the most significant resources to help tackle this challenge – volunteers.

At Helpforce, we believe that volunteers can play a vital role in narrowing the gaps in health inequalities. But to maximise this resource, more investment is needed to develop sustainable infrastructures that can enable volunteers to make a real change.

What causes health inequalities?

Health inequalities are unfair and avoidable differences in health across the population, and between different groups within society. Health inequalities arise because of the conditions in which we are born, grow, live, work and age. (The King’s Fund)

These conditions influence our opportunities for good health, and how we think, feel and act, and this shapes our mental health, physical health, and wellbeing. (GOV.UK)

It’s important to know that life expectancy in England hasn’t improved since 2010, which has not happened since 1900. This is a very worrying sign, because if a society’s health has stopped improving, it’s a sign that society has stopped improving. (Health Foundation)

Why is tackling health inequalities so important?

By tackling health inequalities, everyone should be able to:

  • Access healthcare services earlier and easier
  • Have a better experience when using health and care services
  • Improve their healthy life expectancy

Tackling health inequalities successfully can have a massive impact on preventing ill health. People will be more supported in looking after their health, have control over the way they are treated, and won’t need to use health and care services as much.

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Volunteers at Bradford District Care NHS Foundation Trust taking people out for walks to tackle isolation and loneliness

What can volunteers do to help tackle health inequalities?

There are many ways that volunteers can help tackle health inequalities. For example, volunteers can be part of the “Make Every Contact Count” initiative that refers people to charities and local community services to get help. This practice has been seen at George Eliott Hospital, one of Helpforce’s Back to Health campaign partners. Volunteers call patients on waiting lists to remind patients of appointments and check if they need anything prior to their treatment. Volunteers also ask patients wellbeing questions and refer them to local community services that can help with loneliness, isolation, or other issues patients might have.

Another good example are the Health Promotion Volunteers at West London NHS Trust, where volunteers engage with local communities to provide reliable information around diseases such as diabetes and TB (Tuberculosis). They also provide information on healthy eating and quitting smoking. Volunteers have direct engagement with residents in the community, as they visit them at local libraries or places of worship. In addition, it’s a fantastic opportunity for volunteers to raise people’s awareness of the offers that the Trust provides to the local communities, helping them to access care services more easily.

Volunteers can be involved in tackling health inequalities in their local communities, where they can provide additional support to patients referred by their GPs for non-clinical issues, such as loneliness or isolation. One such scheme was co-developed by Helpforce and three surgeries in West London, which resulted in the Helpforce Companions model that sees volunteers befriend patients, go for a walk with them and provide them with a listening ear. Hass, a patient who benefitted from this service, said: “I was incredibly lucky to have this support during the lockdown. Frankie, who is my Helpforce Companion volunteer, is such a nice person and a very good listener. She has the time to talk to me and go with me for a walk, and that makes a real difference to my life and my family. For someone is isolated or would like companionship, I would recommend them to ask for this help. There has been no difficulty in getting this help and the benefits to my mental health and wellbeing are tremendous.”

How can health and care leaders enable volunteers to help tackle health inequalities?

It’s important that health and care organisations have volunteers who reflect the local communities that they serve. Having diverse volunteers will help reach people seldom heard and provide insights into the support these groups need to access care more easily and have a better experience with health and care providers.

Providing greater flexibility in volunteering so people can volunteer when and where they want, can help to increase the outreach. According to our research with YouGov in April, 56 per cent of the UK public are willing to volunteer to support the health and wellbeing of people in their local communities. Yet, 44 per cent of total respondents said that "not having the ability to commit to set hours on a regular basis" stops them from volunteering. If health and care organisations want to recruit more volunteers to help tackle health inequalities, they have to offer more flexibility. This reflects the wider global drive to more flexibility at work.

Finally, collaborating with local partners to understand the specific challenges that cause health inequalities for different groups will help health and care organisations to come up with solutions that can involve volunteers in the most impactful way. We have seen this collaboration work well when we supported local partners, Brent Council, two key local health trusts Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust (CLCH) and Central North West London NHS Foundation Trust, as well as North West London Clinical Commissioning Group to come together as part of ‘Brent Health Matters’ to address health inequalities in the two most deprived areas: Church End and Alperton. This resulted in a variety of work that sees local people volunteering to help the most vulnerable in the communities to access the right care.

Final words:

Tackling health inequalities should be everyone’s responsibility. It is important we use all the resources at our disposal to tackle this challenge.

Trained volunteers can help to narrow the gap in health inequalities by giving people the support to access care and navigate the right support. Health and care leaders must work with local partners to provide flexible and impactful opportunities to enable volunteers to be part of the solution.

Learn more about how your organisation can mobilise volunteers to reduce DNAs and help patients on waiting lists.