New charter sets out role for volunteers in supporting the NHS

4th April 2019

A pioneering charter showing how volunteers can make a valuable contribution to the NHS in England, without undermining paid staff or affecting patient safety, is being launched today 4 April 2019, by health unions and Helpforce.

The aim is to ensure that the tens of thousands of people who give up their time to provide comfort and help to patients are given guidance about their roles. It’s also intended to safeguard against their use as cheap substitutes for trained health staff.

There are an estimated 78,000 volunteers providing help and support to patients in hospitals across England. This might include running book clubs, talking to patients to relieve anxiety and loneliness, or taking them for walks in the hospital grounds.

The charter aims to reassure staff and helpers alike. It sets clear boundaries for the managers of volunteer services and encourages them to work with health employees to develop roles that support the patient experience, without undermining paid staff.

The guidance sets out to reassure healthcare workers who might be worried about the increase in volunteering. There are concerns extra helpers could be confusing for patients and relatives, mask workforce shortages and put volunteers under pressure to perform staff roles.

The charter recognises that volunteers can help make a patient’s stay in hospital more pleasant, provide valuable support to staff and have a positive impact on the lives of people giving up their free time to the NHS. Individual trusts will now be urged to adopt the principles.

Among the key principles enshrined in the charter are:

  • Volunteers should not undermine paid staff, with essential care tasks reserved for health employees.
  • No volunteers to be included in the workforce numbers for individual trusts and they must be clearly identified as volunteers.
  • Unions will monitor how volunteers are used within organisations, with patient safety and confidentiality the primary concern.

Chair of the health unions and UNISON head of health Sara Gorton said: “The number of volunteers in English hospitals is expected to double by 2023. That’s why it’s vital staff, volunteers and their managers agree measures to protect themselves and the people who use the health service.

“The charter recognises the important contribution of those who give their time for free to an under-resourced NHS, as well as providing clarity for the way ahead. It also ensures unions are involved in making this work in local hospitals.”

Chair and founder of Helpforce Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallett said: “We are proud to be working closely with health unions to deliver this important new charter and establish formal boundaries between the role of a volunteer and the role of staff in our health care.

“As thousands more volunteers join our NHS, it is vital we protect them, as well as giving clarity to hardworking staff and patients. There are many examples of high quality volunteer management happening throughout the NHS, including innovative roles and great volunteer training programmes. This charter seeks to reinforce best practice and create a national standard for us all to aspire to.”


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