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Digging deep: the impact volunteers are having in hospitals

Jullie Tran Graham, trust engagement lead at HelpForce, dives deep into the more meaningful data surrounding the positive impact volunteers are having on our hospitals.

In the voluntary sector we put a lot of emphasis on the effort we’re making, how many people we serve, how many hours our volunteers have contributed. This effort matters and it is important to quantify it, but at HelpForce, we believe measuring effort is only half the story.   

Effort is only valuable if that effort is achieving some kind of benefit. That’s why, when launching our new model of volunteering in health, the team at HelpForce knew we wouldn’t succeed in scaling volunteers unless we measured the change volunteers are bringing, and how they are doing it. By measuring in this depth we hope to bring the impact volunteers make to many more hospitals.

For example, at the Chelsea and Westminster NHS Trust, we are analysing their new bleep volunteer service. Bleep volunteers are on call and ready to help at a moment’s notice. The voluntary services team there have 12 committed volunteers who contribute on average 15 hours of support to the hospital each week. Instead of being satisfied with this as the measure, we wanted to unpick how the volunteers were benefiting the staff and patients during these hours. We wanted to answer the question: What impact are the volunteers having?

We knew that the volunteers were closely supporting the pharmacy team and spending the majority of their time doing ‘drug runs.’ We put in place a simple way to collect data which showed us that, between March and June 2018, the dedicated volunteers completed about 225 drug runs. Taking the analysis further we found out that, on average, staff would have spent 12 minutes per drug run. From this we were then able to estimate the time volunteers saved staff. This gets us closer to a quality measure: how staff are better off.

We estimated that the bleep service saved a huge 45 hours of staff time in the three month period. We haven’t stopped there; our next step is to unpick the impact of having the bleep volunteers ‘on-call’ on things that matter to the efficiency of NHS services, such as length of stay.

Another example of where this measurement approach is working well is at West Suffolk NHS Trust. The voluntary services team at West Suffolk are developing a transport and accompaniment service for patients who are seen by their Early Interventions Team. This new service offers patients the opportunity to be accompanied with a friendly volunteer from hospital to home, and supported by that volunteer for up to an hour when they arrive home.

Again, we could easily measure the number of volunteers, volunteer hours, or the total time a volunteer spends at home with the patient – all effort-based measures. These measures wouldn’t reveal too much about whether the time volunteers were spending with patients was helping to, for example, reduce their anxiety about going home, or whether the support of volunteers was helping to speed up discharges from hospital.

By working closely with the voluntary services team, and the Early Interventions Team, we have put tools in place to look at the anxiety scores for patients before they are assigned a volunteer, and a day after a patient is accompanied home with a volunteer. For every patient, we have also started to capture some data around ‘expected discharge time,’ which accounts for things like wait times for an ambulance, a family member, or a carer might be free to collect the patient.

Through this data, we are starting to see the true impact of the service. It is indeed reducing anxiety and it can speed up discharge by nearly four hours. There’ll be more to say about this service once it becomes fully established and embedded but these are promising impact results that we are all pleased about.  

Some fear that in focussing on such measurements we risk losing sight of the human value, and the inherent kindness volunteers bring to a hospital. This is the last thing we want to do, but we believe that by measuring the impact of volunteer contributions in this way, we will be able to show the full value volunteers can bring to hospitals.

By sharing this data we hope to see more and more volunteers, with new and meaningful roles, being deployed in hospitals across our country. This will ensure the magic that occurs when someone gives their time freely to another in need spreads to more staff, patients and communities, benefiting us all.  

Anyone can find out more about new evidence on voluntary action in the NHS by getting in touch with HelpForce and joining our Learning Network.


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