Patient safety

04.12.18

Volunteers help ‘reduce pressure’ on NHS frontline, but clarity needed over role boundaries

Frontline NHS staff have praised the “invaluable contribution” volunteers play in the hospitals and reducing mounting pressures, but a lack of clarity around role boundaries is the biggest danger facing voluntary work.

An estimated 78,000 volunteers work in NHS hospitals nationwide, which the King’s Fund has found to add value and as they carry out a diverse range of activities that frontline staff don’t have time to.

The study, conducted for the Royal Voluntary Service, looked at the perceptions of frontline NHS staff about operational pressures, and found that staff appreciated volunteers “provided they were not being used as substitutes for paid staff.”

The report warned that volunteers should never be required to do the work of trained staff, and stressed the importance of the NHS making full use of volunteers amid a “once-in a generation” NHS workforce crisis.

The think tank found that this lack of knowledge about the limits of volunteers “could lead to tensions between staff and volunteers.”

But over 70% of all NHS staff interviewed agreed that volunteering in hospitals was adding value for patients, staff, and for volunteers themselves. The majority also said they enjoyed working with volunteers.

Staff cited volunteers’ ability to support staff by freeing up their time so they could prioritise clinical care, acting as an extra pair of eyes and hands and carrying outs practical tasks such as picking up medicine from pharmacies and escorting patients around hospitals.

Richard Murray, director of policy at the King’s Fund, commented: “Understanding this is critical if the welcome step-change in health policy and support for volunteering is to translate to practical success on the ground.

“We encourage NHS bosses to sit up and take note of the critical role their staff say volunteers play in enhancing patient experience.”

One respondent said volunteers’ value lay in “bringing human kindness to a busy ward,” with three in four saying volunteers helped them care for patients, and a third believing volunteers help free up their time.

The King’s Fund said there was an appetite to get more volunteers involved in more aspects of hospital work, and stated that staff felt the impact of volunteers could be increased through better knowledge and guidelines about their roles.

Catherine Johnstone, chief executive of Royal Voluntary Service, said: “We know the difference they make, from improving patient experience to allowing more time for doctors and nurses to concentrate on clinical care.”

“But the perceptions of frontline NHS staff on the issue have, to date, been largely overlooked. The report highlights both opportunities and challenges, which we need to embrace and tackle if we want to successfully scale up voluntary service in hospitals.”

Image credit - sturti

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