Working together to improve the impact of volunteers

11th February 2019

Mary knew she was in the final days of her life and was extremely anxious and afraid of being alone.  Her daughter, Lily, was the only family member she had for comfort and support. Lily had been at her mother’s bedside for four days with very little sleep when Charlie, a volunteer, offered to sit with Mary to enable Lily to have a few hours rest.  Lily said “My mum was really comforted by Charlie’s presence and I felt reassured enough to return home for a shower, a sleep and to pack some clothes for the next few days ahead… just those few hours made all the difference… I feel like a new woman and able to cope much better.”

In acute trusts alone, volunteers such as Charlie contribute 13 million hours every year and they make a massive difference to the experience of patients and their family. And not only does volunteering improve people’s experience of the healthcare system. It also reduces pressure on staff and on services, can improve outcomes for patients, and benefits the health and wellbeing of the volunteer themselves. Yet this impact often goes unrecognised, the involvement of volunteers varies across NHS organisations, and there are so many more ways in which volunteers could add value.  

Over the past year I’ve been struck by the range of new volunteering roles being developed all the time which could better support patients, but our evidence base is lacking and the spread of these innovations is often limited.  The work that Helpforce has already done to address this with five trusts is hugely important and I’m so pleased to see the range of incredible interventions being put forwards by the ten NHS trusts that will be supported by Helpforce to develop high impact volunteering roles which can be spread across the NHS.

In January, we published the long-term plan for the NHS. It recognised that staff, patients and volunteers benefit from well-designed volunteering initiatives and committed to double the number of volunteers in the NHS within the next three years. The Helpforce programme is one of the ways in which we aim to increase the quality and number of volunteering opportunities available.

Volunteering is not a free resource. It needs to be supported by good recruitment and management practice, with volunteers trained and supervised in their role. We know that volunteering can make a huge difference to patients and staff.  But with extreme financial pressure on the NHS, investing in the development of new volunteering roles can be a risk.

I am really excited that NHS England is working in partnership with the new Helpforce programme.  By developing new and innovative volunteering roles, it will not only provide an evidence base demonstrating how different interventions can support NHS trusts, but its open learning and sharing approach across the NHS will enable others to learn from this practice and adopt the innovations locally.

The volunteering roles that will be explored as part of this programme have been carefully chosen as areas where volunteering may be under developed or where we believe it could have most impact.  For example, in Salisbury where highly trained volunteers support patients identified to be experiencing low mood to re-engage with their therapy and therefore get better faster, or at Sandwell and West Birmingham, where volunteers are supporting patients to stay mobile.  Loss of muscle strength from a lack of mobility can happen very quickly during a hospital stay, leading to a longer stay in hospital and a higher risk of infection. Volunteers helping to make sure patients move more during their stay can help promote a quicker recovery and  a faster return home. And at Dorset HealthCare University NHS Foundation Trust, volunteers will provide vital support with end of life care in the community, enabling more people to die at home if they choose.

I’m looking forward to how these interventions will demonstrate the impact made to the things that really make a difference for patients, such as reducing the amount of time they need to stay in hospital unnecessarily, improving their discharge from hospital and setting back in at home, and improving their overall experience of their hospital stay.

We’re eager for other NHS trusts to join this movement. For more details on how to get involved to help volunteers make an even bigger impact, please join our Learning Network.

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