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The benefits of bringing volunteers to the heart of your hospital

Sir Jim Mackey, chief executive of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, outlines the benefits of bringing volunteers into hospitals, as well as the valuable work of Helpforce.

Volunteers have always been involved in the NHS, and it’s estimated that around 78,000 volunteers currently support patients and staff in England’s acute hospitals. Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust has a successful track record of working with volunteers. We have more than 900 volunteers – representing nearly 10% of our total workforce – across 34 different roles.

Like many others, I love the warm welcome that volunteers greet us within all areas of the hospital every day. Whether it’s helping patients to navigate their way around the hospital, getting them up and mobile, collecting medications to support clinical staff or simply making a welcome cup of tea. Volunteers can make such a difference for patients and staff but they bring much more than a cheerful disposition- they are essential to the successful running of our services.

We’ve always known the importance of volunteers, but working with Helpforce (the charitable organisation maximising the use of volunteering across the NHS) really helped us to enhance and prove their value. We’re proud to have been one of the five NHS Trusts in the HelpForce learning network who ran pilot programmes to develop and test new volunteer interventions. By testing and evaluating a range of different volunteer roles, the aim is to share good practice and increase support for volunteers across the health service.

Helpforce gave us the opportunity to explore more roles for younger volunteers – which was key because there had previously been limited opportunities to engage younger volunteers in an acute ward setting. We developed a befriending role so the younger volunteers could enhance the patient experience, particularly for older patients without their own support network. The results were very promising:

  • During the project, the young volunteers visited over 500 patients and provided social interaction and support;
  • Patients told us they enjoyed the company of young people, and staff told us that having the volunteers meant they were able to focus on nursing duties;
  • We also found that volunteers grew in confidence, learnt and shared important skills, and gained valuable experience working as a team. Within six months, staff observed a 53% increase in volunteer confidence and volunteers themselves felt a 25% increase in their own confidence.

Looking ahead, we will now be focusing on the use of volunteers in our community and neighbourhood healthcare settings.

Engaging people in their own healthcare choices is key, and volunteers can play a vital part in this by helping to demystify some of the clinical and technical aspects of healthcare, making things more understandable and relatable for patients. In doing so, volunteers can strengthen the relationship between the health service and the patients we support.

With the NHS Long-Term Plan committing to double the number of NHS volunteers over the next three years, we are likely to see greater strategic use and integration of volunteers. NHS leaders who aren’t already maximising volunteers are missing a trick, so this pledge from NHS England is an extremely important and welcome step.

The NHS belongs to all of us, and we should all be looking for opportunities to enhance the patient and staff experience. Safe and effective volunteers must continue to be part of the fabric of our fantastic health service.


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