The 3 BIG health and care challenges – and how volunteering can help

23rd January 2024


Our CEO, Mark Lever, explores where volunteering could make a difference to three of the biggest challenges in health and care: finding people the right support, so they attend their appointments and get better quicker; smoothing patients’ path home after treatment; and plugging the workforce gap.

I’m in the very fortunate position of having just come back from a three-month sabbatical. This has given me a refreshed perspective on the opportunities and challenges faced by our health and care services – and how volunteers can help

To start with opportunities: the new Volunteering for Health funding programme. This £10m fund aims to reinforce the volunteering infrastructure, allowing partnerships to test new approaches within the Integrated Care System structure, so that the successful ones can be rolled out more widely.

It’s great to see UK-wide, statutory funding and encouragement for a systemic and ambitious approach to volunteering. This is very much what Helpforce was set up to encourage, and we look forward to finding out about and sharing the new ideas about volunteering that the programme will deliver.

In terms of the challenges, in this blog I’ve sketched out how we need to consider focusing our efforts if volunteering is going to make a difference, when the challenges are so vast. That’s what Helpforce is going to do. We will use the skills, experience and networks we’ve established working with trusts and ICSs to concentrate on helping our partners in health and care to tackle three major challenges: people missing appointments because they don’t have the right support; speeding up discharge; and using volunteering as a way to get people into health and care jobs.

I look forward to hearing your response to this approach!

No. 1 - Speeding up treatment, saving resources and reducing health inequalities

Getting people to their appointment

If people miss their diagnosis or treatment appointments, this can put their recovery at risk and wastes staff and equipment resources. And, at a system level, adds to the waiting list for elective care – recently estimated by the Health Foundation as reaching over 8 million by the summer. That’s why reducing DNAs (Did Not Attends) is a priority across health and care.

Volunteers can be part of the solution. By contacting people ahead of their appointment, a volunteer can find out what might stop them making it to their appointment and either resolve the problem or reschedule the appointment. The barrier might be something simple, like help with transport or the time of the appointment doesn't work for the parent of a small child. Or they may need to be linked up to a community service for other support.

The data volunteers collect about the barriers to attending treatment also helps tackle health inequalities; highlighting where the system isn’t working for some communities.

What Helpforce is doing:

  • We’re rolling out volunteer-led contact centres with individual trusts and as part of our pilot programmes with six ICBs. Our evidence shows these centres reduce DNA levels – and we’ll be sharing a new evaluation report soon. Even a small difference, replicated across the system, translates to massive savings and better health as people get on their treatment pathway more quickly.
  • Find out about our free online course about setting up a contact centre.

No. 2 - Getting people home and keeping them well

Supporting patient discharge

The reasons people can’t go home from hospital as soon as they’re well are often difficult to resolve. Findings from the Nuffield Trust last month showed that getting social care support at home remains a core challenge for vulnerable people after a long hospital stay. But we know that in many cases, volunteers can support speedier and more successful discharge, and help people stay well at home.

We evaluated discharge support from volunteers at Kingston Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. Volunteers develop immediate support plans to ensure patients have the confidence to go home alone. They then give support for up to six weeks over the phone. Our evaluation showed this support meant patients were more confident (19% higher) and more likely to be connected to local support (31% higher).

As part of their award-winning Back to Health programme, George Eliot Hospital volunteers also make check-in phone calls after people have left hospital and find an average of 10% of people need additional support to help them stay well. Without the call from a volunteer, their health could have deteriorated and they could have been back in hospital.

What Helpforce is doing:

  • We offer a model response volunteer service, designed to help people get home as quickly as possible, as one of our free online courses.
  • Another of our free online courses, the model call centre service, includes post-discharge calls.

No. 3 - Encouraging people to join the health and care workforce

Volunteer to Career

The health and care workforce faces critical challenges: burnout, low retention rates and resulting high vacancy rates. The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan sets out the many ways this complex challenge will be tackled – and we were pleased to see that it references volunteering as one part of the solution.

The Helpforce Volunteer to Career programme allows volunteers to try out roles in health and care, while providing support to patients or service users and to staff. Evidence from the 22 organisations using the programme shows that 62% of volunteers have secured a job or are undertaking further education in health and care.

What Helpforce is doing:

  • We’re working with trusts and social care organisations to set up Volunteer to Career pathways alongside their other volunteering and employment programmes.
  • And, we offer Volunteer to Career as one of our free online courses.

Volunteering is always valuable… But do you agree we need to focus on making the biggest difference?

Beyond the ‘3 BIG challenges’, our extensive evidence shows that volunteers help patients and staff feel more supported. That’s a good reason in itself to encourage more volunteering. But, at a time when our health and care services are under such pressure, I believe it’s important we also make sure we deploy volunteers where they can make most difference.

This blog sets out how Helpforce plans to do this. Look out for our posts on Twitter/X and LinkedIn and let me know - have we got this right?