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




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 Hospital operated through a largely generic ward system that saw volunteers doing bits and pieces all over the hospital. 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. We quickly acquired around seventy iPads 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 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 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 unfortunately made redundant as a result of the pandemic, 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 three hours 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 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. Finally, 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.

Additional Roles

Alongside our flagship Digital Befriending role, we also have additional volunteering programmes designed to ease the pandemic’s strain on our patients’ mental wellbeing. The Check-In and Chat role sees volunteers befriend service users over the phone through regular calls. These volunteers provide essential companionship to those who may be isolated as a result of having limited contact with others. While this is not a clinical role, these calls are incredibly helpful in assessing the wellbeing of our service users. As a mental health Trust, the majority of people referred to us are coming from services that support people with learning disabilities or conditions such as dementia. These service users are consequently some of the most vulnerable patients we have and the social isolation that’s caused as a result of the pandemic is a huge risk. 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 over a hundred patients using the service provided by our trained volunteers. Our volunteers, of course, go through all the expected checks and complete a thorough training day that’s hosted over Zoom. They are provided with a smartphone (after service agreements are signed) which they can use to complete the e-learning/training and we follow-up with volunteers after each session. Alongside our Digital Befriending role, this programme has been enormously helpful in assessing and assisting the wellbeing of some of our most vulnerable patients. Without the help of volunteers, it would be incredibly challenging to reach out to all of our service users.

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 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.

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