The NHS needs vital volunteer support to see it through the next 70 years

Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallett, chair and founder of HelpForce, argues the case for NHS volunteers and the vital role they can play in the next 70 years of the NHS.

It is exhausting keeping track of the challenges faced by the NHS. Imagine what it must be like when you are in the middle of it all as a frontline worker.

The 70th anniversary is a good moment to reflect on what will help the service continue to  provide outstanding care to patients, and support its amazing workforce. Areas such as getting people to and from hospital, helping patients recover in their homes, or assisting people as they navigate their way through, are under pressure. These aren’t ‘nice to have’ elements; they are essential to helping people recover.

More funding will always be welcome, but may never keep up with the growing demand. Now is a good time to go back to the genesis of the NHS and consider one of the central tenets of the Beveridge Report, which led to the creation of the NHS and the wider welfare state. It says: “The state should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual."

That room and encouragement for voluntary action is a powerful reminder of how important volunteers are to enhancing the reach and impact of public services, something we haven’t fully maximised within the NHS. While we currently benefit from over 78,000 people volunteering with acute NHS Trusts, they are rarely integrated into NHS strategies or service delivery plans. This is a missed opportunity.

Used properly, volunteers can really help healthcare professionals meet the diverse needs of patients. This is especially true for older patients, or those with less family to support them. For example, volunteers can help those with mobility issues to be more active, preventing muscle deterioration which often leads to patients being stuck in hospital. Volunteer support for patients at mealtimes has shown that they eat more, and are more satisfied with their experience. And volunteers can improve patient discharge processes, ensuring that people leave with the right prescriptions and support.

We urgently need to recognise the untapped potential of volunteers, and that is what HelpForce, a not for profit organisation launched last year, is looking to do. Backed by many healthcare and voluntary sector leaders, we aim to alleviate the pressure the NHS is under by ensuring the benefits of volunteering are recognised and supported.

We want to help double the number of volunteers working in NHS trusts by 2021, and see a vast improvement in the range and quality of volunteer roles available to support patient care. To maximise the value of volunteers we need to better integrate them with hospital staff and services; create roles that can best support patients and staff; and ensure that all volunteers receive the right training, support and opportunities.

Founding the NHS was a huge idea, and we need big ideas if it is to survive. If we can unlock the full potential of volunteers in the NHS, we can bring major benefits for patients, communities, staff, volunteers, and health care providers. We can ensure a future where every patient can have a volunteer to provide companionship and help them through the hospital and back home; a workplace where staff are supported by volunteers who allow them to focus more of their time on providing expert care; and a culture where hospitals and communities work more closely together for the benefit of all.


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