Health Service Focus

29.10.19

The expanding role of volunteers in the NHS

Source: NHE: Sep/Oct 19

Helen Gilburt, fellow in health policy at the King’s Fund, explores the increasing importance and role of volunteers within the healthcare service.

In 2013, The King’s Fund first explored the growing role of volunteering in the NHS. We estimated there were more than 78,000 volunteers across all acute hospital trusts but highlighted the potential for far more. 

The NHS Long Term Plan commits to doubling the number of NHS volunteers in the next three years. One area where expansion of volunteers is already evident is in acute hospitals. Our recent work highlights the varied ways in which volunteers contribute to the care of patients in acute trusts, from helping with practical tasks such as picking up medications and escorting patients around the hospital, to providing comfort and support to patients during their stay. 

That potential of volunteers is also being realised in other sectors of the NHS. General practice has traditionally been at the heart of local communities, but increasing pressure on services can make it difficult to maintain that connection. In these circumstances, it would be easy for GPs to hunker down, but a number of practices are actively reaching out to draw on the considerable skills and support that exists within the community. 

Some of the opportunities that are emerging include volunteers helping out to support attendees at events such as flu clinics and helping patients fill out forms in the surgery. Other practices are working more closely with community organisations which support volunteers to provide activities such as social prescribing and self-management support. And an increasingly large number are opening their doors to volunteers as part of a movement to develop new models of community-centred general practice which reflect the social as much as the medical. 

It’s easy to forget that volunteers have made a significant contribution to the NHS over many decades. One of the most well-established volunteer roles is that of community first responders. These volunteers comprise of local people who are trained and despatched by ambulance services to attend life-threatening medical emergencies in the area they live. They provide vital life support until the arrival of an ambulance crew. 

Over the years community first responder have been embedded into a system of clinical governance, but the frontline role is unusual in the NHS and, in other areas of the health service, concerns have been raised about the boundaries between volunteer roles and NHS staff. Those concerns are not unfounded - workforce shortages may increase the risk of volunteers being asked to take on the work of paid staff and being left to undertake tasks without due supervision.

It’s also important to remember that while volunteers give their time for free, volunteering is not a free resource. One of the most consistent pieces of learning is the need to invest time and resources in good volunteer management. Volunteers can come and go, so retention is key and that means making sure that they feel supported, that opportunities meet the needs and expectations of volunteers, and the value of their contribution is visible and articulated. 

Ultimately the strongest argument for supporting volunteers in the NHS should be based on value. The value of volunteers can be difficult to quantify: they are often an extra pair of hands, they bring humanity in times of pressure, and they provide a vital connection between NHS services and the communities in which they reside. 

What we do know is that the impact of volunteering is threefold. Firstly, patients can benefit - from the interventions and the support that volunteers can help to deliver. Secondly, volunteers can support staff, freeing up time to prioritise clinical care. And finally volunteering can contribute to improved knowledge, self-esteem and confidence in volunteers and in some cases provides an opportunity to support people into employment in a health-related career.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Tw: @TheKingsFund

W: www.kingsfund.org.uk

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