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‘We must maximise the major potential of volunteers across primary care’

volunteers, NHS, primary care
By Mark Lever chief executive, Helpforce
8 June 2021

Our health and social care system faces huge challenges – including recovering from the pandemic, lengthening waiting lists, deepening health inequalities, a hugely stretched workforce and a possible mental health epidemic. Tackling these issues needs multiple solutions. But there’s one already in place that we are not using to anywhere near its full potential – volunteers.

With NHS staff and resources under immense pressure just to deliver the core medical treatment people desperately need, volunteers can provide vital additional support to patients and staff – benefitting the people supported, health and social care services, the volunteers themselves and the community as whole. 

When volunteers are built into the design of primary care from the beginning, they can be transformative: helping people to be more active and healthier at home, providing a friendly face or voice on the end of the phone, or enabling patients facing digital exclusion to access online health services and connect with others. For example, our Helpforce Companions project at three GP practices in North West London involves volunteers helping patients with simple but significant tasks like picking up medication, and taking them to appointments or community events to help them stay connected and active. 

From our work with various primary care settings, NHS Trusts, and research with patients, staff and volunteers, we have clear evidence of the complementary role that volunteers play alongside staff. In our view, if volunteers were a medical treatment, they would be hailed as a breakthrough. Recent research we carried out found 91% of patients supported by a volunteer said it improved their mood, while 78% said that volunteers helped to reduce their anxiety. It also showed that when  volunteers support patient mobility, patients are less likely to be re-referred to physiotherapy. Meanwhile, 71% of nurses say that volunteer support helps them feel less stressed. 

Volunteers Week (1 – 7 June) is an annual opportunity to recognise how volunteers of all ages and backgrounds are making a massive positive difference. But it’s also an important moment to highlight where we must do more to accelerate the use of volunteers throughout health and care, so that more patients, staff, communities and volunteers themselves can reap the benefits. 

Despite significant public interest in volunteering and its proven positive outcomes for everyone involved, volunteers are still an untapped resource across many settings and roles. For example, a survey we conducted with over 100 NHS trusts in March this year showed that 44% of respondents felt their senior leaders had a low understanding of the impact of volunteers. We are calling for healthcare leaders to accelerate the impact of volunteers in their settings. Now is the chance to radically increase the number of trained and committed volunteers supporting our health and social care system – the context is ripe for change.

New funding is coming into primary care to support greater connections with local communities, and there is an increasing awareness across health and care systems around the need for hyper-local approaches to improving community wellbeing. To help primary care networks and GP practices to be more connected with their local communities, NHS England and NHS Improvement has made funding available for primary care networks to appoint Social Prescribing Link Workers. Social Prescribing Link Workers are already beginning to help to encourage greater volunteering in primary care, providing a bridge between GP-based clinical staff and the communities they work in – and there is significant potential to scale this up.

The pandemic has catalysed people’s desire to help others in their communities: 436,000 people from the Volunteer Responders Programme have already carried out almost two million tasks for people in need since the start of Covid-19 crisis. There is a huge pool of people who stand ready to volunteer – reducing the strain on hard-working staff and ensuring that patient care is as personalised and effective as possible.

If ever there was a time to seize the moment for volunteering in primary healthcare, this is surely it. We need many more health and social care leaders to prioritise volunteering – not only as part of the immediate recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, but as part of the long term, sustainable future of the NHS. We’ll all benefit if we harness the full potential of volunteers. 

Mark Lever is chief executive of Helpforce, which works with experts in volunteering in health and care to develop a wide range of support and resources to ensure that volunteering leaders have all they need to bring their service to the next level.

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