The Scalpel's Blog


NHS leaders have a duty to unlock the potential of volunteers

Dr Stephen Dunn, chief executive of West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, discusses the vital role volunteers have played in West Suffolk and how they are an untapped recourse of potential for the NHS.

Volunteers play a valuable role in our communities, so it is a huge missed opportunity that they remain a ‘nice to have’ option in so many hospitals. This problem is being tackled by HelpForce, an organisation working with forward-thinking NHS leaders to unlock the benefits they bring for patients, health services, the volunteers and our communities.

To achieve this goal, NHS leaders must make volunteering a priority. While more than 78,000 people currently volunteer with acute NHS Trusts, they are rarely integrated into services. This is a missed opportunity.

At West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, we have made it a priority to integrate our volunteers with our staff, bringing them into the heart of our hospitals. We have a long tradition of helping our volunteers to underpin the great work that we do. More than 400 volunteers, from young students to retired healthcare workers, support our patients and staff and they are hugely appreciated and regularly celebrated by us all.

In 2016, our team of volunteers gave a record-breaking 47,358 hours of time to the Trust, with 49 long service awards distributed to volunteers who, between them, had given 530 years of service, including one with 35 years’ service.

Our strong volunteering heritage means we are a natural fit to be one of the 13 NHS trusts working with HelpForce. Alongside other trusts in HelpForce’s learning network, we are sharing knowledge to create a best practice model for volunteering in the NHS, which can be used more widely to develop and test new volunteer interventions.

For any NHS leaders doubting the benefits of volunteering, I believe the volunteers at West Suffolk recently helped us improve our CQC rating from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’. The CQC’s report specifically cited the contribution of volunteers, including their support with end of life care, which involves trained volunteers supporting with palliative care and acting as ward companions for both patients and their families.

One of our proudest achievements is the success of our bleep volunteers. They carry pagers so they can be contacted by staff from across the hospital to help them in real time, providing efficient assistance where it’s needed most.

This might include by helping to collect medicines for patients who require extra support when discharged. This also helps us discharge people to reduce delay, ensuring people can get home when they are ready and allowing the next patients who needs our care into our hospital.

Not only is volunteering good for our patients and staff, but it also improves the self-esteem, wellbeing and social connections of the volunteers themselves. Many of our volunteers are retired and choose to volunteer as a way of filling their spare time.

For example, our bleep volunteers maintain social interaction and stay fit and active by helping around the hospital. I experienced just how much ground these volunteers cover by shadowing them, alongside our executive director of workforce and communications, who achieved a massive 16,000 steps in just one shift!

NHS England has already made volunteering a key part of its 70th anniversary celebrations and I’d urge all NHS leaders to recognise the value and potential of volunteers. I want West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust to significantly increase its volunteer cohort and to develop our volunteering roles to reach out into the community.

Well-managed and properly trained volunteers can help improve patient experiences and support staff, as well as contribute to a more connected community. With the new HelpForce model, the potential to maximise volunteering in the NHS is huge. It’s up to all of us to make this happen.


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