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The value of realising the full potential of volunteers in the NHS

By Lesley Watts
19 March 2019

Having worked in the NHS for many years, Lesley Watts, chief executive of Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust has always been aware of the great support that volunteers provide to patients and staff, but she says the health service could be doing much more to realise their full potential.

The catalyst for change came when I met with our chairman Sir Tom Hughes-Hallett. He joined Chelsea and Westminster NHS Foundation Trust after leading Marie Curie, where he had witnessed first-hand the profound positive difference volunteers could make.

Sir Tom knew that while healthcare leaders were providing fantastic medical care, areas around the edges of core healthcare were under pressure. He knew the vital part that volunteers could play to support patients and staff—including getting people to and from hospital or assisting patients and families as they navigated their way through the healthcare system—and he wanted to expand and better integrate volunteer roles across the health service.

He turned his idea into a reality and, in 2017, Helpforce—a charitable organisation mobilising volunteering in healthcare—was born. In just two years, it has become very successful in driving enormous change, helping to enhance perceptions of volunteering in the NHS by measuring and proving its impact.

Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust is proud to have been part of the first five Helpforce projects, which involved us creating new volunteer roles and asserting their effect.

Helpforce’s approach has been pivotal to changing the way we think as an organisation with a range of areas including volunteer training, creating new volunteer roles and measuring impact.

Eighteen months on and we have had significant successes at the trust:

  • Our bleep volunteer service — which launched in March 2018 and involves volunteers being available to support staff with a wide range of ad-hoc requests — has had important benefits for patients and staff. The service uses a system of walkie talkies to make urgent contact with available volunteers, enabling them to focus their assistance to where and when it’s needed
  • Working closely with our amazing staff, 35 bleep volunteers have improved the patient experience and smoothed the flow in hospital—staff say they value the extra time that volunteers have made available for them to focus on their core roles
  • By providing appointment reminders, volunteers have halved ‘did not attend’ rates for patients in the memory clinic

It was crucial for us to evidence the benefits. By measuring the impact of new volunteer roles, staff can really appreciate the value that volunteers bring. Involving our professional staff in the integration of volunteers has also been key.

We spoke regularly with staff, issued surveys to gather feedback and held focus groups with volunteers—this allowed our team to make important adjustments, such as providing specialist dementia training for volunteers where necessary. Our goal is to now expand the bleep service to West Middlesex University Hospital, which is part of Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

Volunteering is good for the people being supported, health and social care services, charities, the volunteers themselves and the community as whole.

We involve many young volunteers, which helps to improve their confidence and equip them with new skills—and, for some, volunteering can provide a route into permanent employment in the NHS. At the other end of the spectrum, volunteering in later life helps people to maintain social connections and a sense of purpose.

NHS leaders who aren’t maximising volunteers are missing a trick—we should want to see volunteers ingrained into all aspects of the NHS. The fact that volunteering was included in the recently published NHS long-term plan is a key step towards achieving this.

I am immensely grateful to all the volunteers working with us as we build a more coherent and strategic approach to volunteering in the NHS. Truly harnessing the power of volunteers will help everyone to get the best out of our brilliant health service.

Lesley Watts  is chief executive at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust


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