Comment

04.02.14

Making helping in hospitals the norm

Source: National Health Executive Jan/Feb 2014

Vicki Sellick explains why Nesta and the Cabinet Office are making more than £1.5m available to encourage more volunteers to help out in hospitals.

No-one likes to spend time in hospital. It’s an experience we all dread. It can be confusing and a time of great anxiety, wondering what the future holds. Knowing we have access to the NHS, a world class healthcare system, is immensely reassuring. So too are simple acts of compassion in times of crisis – someone to hold your hand, to buy a paper or book a taxi.

But imagine if you didn’t have anyone to do that for you. If you came to hospital alone because your partner couldn’t get time off work, or your children lived too far away to make it in time.

Nurses and other ward staff can’t play that role, so that’s where a growing army of volunteers on hospitals wards up and down the country have been stepping in.

Last month the King’s Fund announced that there are as many volunteers in the health and social care space as there are staff – three million of each. It shouldn’t be a surprise really, yet so often the work of this army of volunteers goes unnoticed and the impact they have isn’t quantified.

The truth is we need more people to be generous with their time. We are all holding our breath to see if hospitals cope with the expected surge of older people in need of A&E care or overnight stays this winter. And for every hospital volunteer there are two patients in need of a conversation for companionship, or support navigating the maze of wards, or someone to sit with as they wait for test results. That’s why we need to make sure that volunteers helping in hospitals are the norm.

Starting with a simple question – what acts of kindness are missing?

Over the last year Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, and the Cabinet Office have supported Kings College Hospital to increase its volunteer base from 150 to more than 1,000 volunteers a month.

Kings College Hospital has got a simple and smart model to not only get more volunteers on wards, but also to make sure that the volunteers feel part of the hospital team, helping patients to feel comfortable and get better faster.

It all started with a staff survey. The hospital asked staff “What would you like to do to help patients, but don’t have the time to do?”

The survey generated a list of simple, humane acts of kindness: from welcoming and guiding people around the building, to running errands, talking to patients and holding their hands while they wait for surgery. The hospital turned those into volunteer role descriptions and asked local people to help out.

Local people responded in their thousands. Over time Kings College Hospital has worked out how to recruit the best volunteers. They now get up to 100 applications a month, which they assess through inviting candidates to open days and group exercises, and make them feel part of the team with uniforms, lanyards and group training. The hospital now routinely deploys over 1,000 volunteers from diverse backgrounds who have all committed to regular volunteering over a year.

Kings College Hospital have also committed to tracking the impact of their efforts on patient satisfaction and they’ve found that not only does patient satisfaction improve, but so too does staff morale. This is important as few hospitals are systematically collecting data on the impact of volunteers. It’s a great shame – the Kings Fund’s latest estimates show that for every £1 spent on volunteering in hospitals, £11 of value is returned.

Helping in Hospitals programme

The good news is that Kings College Hospital isn’t alone. We’ve been drawn to a pioneering (but small) group of hospitals trying to rapidly increase the number of volunteers on wards.

Many of them are making smart use of simple devices to maximise the impact of their volunteers – like tailored recruitment to find skilled volunteers for dementia wards, uniforms and lanyards to make volunteers feel part of the team (see case study boxes below).

We think there are plenty of hospitals that could learn from the techniques Kings College Hospital and others have deployed.

That’s why we’ve made up to £1.5m available to hospitals to replicate the model through the Helping in Hospitals programme. We’ve set aside these funds to significantly expand and improve volunteering services and make sure thousands more patients have the benefit of a supportive volunteer on hand to improve their experience of hospital.

We’ll be announcing the hospitals we’re backing in early spring and working with them for 18 months to make sure we gather evidence 

of the impact this volunteering is having on patient satisfaction and other measures. Our hunch is that spending time with a volunteer doesn’t just reassure patients, it also helps them recover faster and get discharged earlier. Volunteering then isn’t just a nice to have, it’s an essential for any hospital wanting to improve the outcomes of its patients.

Making generosity the norm

Getting more volunteers to help in hospitals through the Helping in Hospitals programme is just one of the Centre for Social Action’s missions. The Centre for Social Action’s Innovation Fund is a partnership between Nesta and the Cabinet Office to support the growth of innovations that mobilise people to help each other.

We’re looking for the best ways to get more volunteers to tutor school children, or to spend time with those with dementia, or to help someone else with a long term condition (like diabetes) navigate the frightening first few months after diagnosis. Ultimately we’re looking for the best ways to back generosity and make helping a neighbour out normal.

Helping in Hospitals is a part of that journey. The evidence from Kings College Hospital and others suggests that when patients are able to connect with volunteers on wards their satisfaction increases, as well as their outcomes.

We hope that Helping in Hospitals gives hospitals the best possible chance of recruiting thousands more volunteers and empowers them with the evidence of how to use them most effectively. And in doing so we hope the initiative goes some small way to making sure that more patients have access to the generosity and care of volunteers like those at King’s, Aintree, Great Ormond Street and Norwich and Norfolk Hospitals.

About the author

Vicki Sellick is a director at Nesta, where she oversees the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund, a £14m programme to support the growth of innovations that mobilise people’s energy and talents to help each other, working alongside public services. Helping in Hospitals is part of this work.

(Image: c. Addenbrookes Hospital)

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