Nobody can be under any illusion about the scale of the challenges facing our health and social care system. Millions of people are waiting for desperately needed treatment, and A&E and ambulance services are consistently at or near capacity. Tackling these big problems requires radical thinking and multiple solutions. But one already in place is not being used to its full potential – volunteers.
The Government, local authorities, health and care leaders and community organisations must work together to implement properly managed volunteer initiatives. Only then will we unlock its huge power for people across the UK.
One lesson of the pandemic is that the public genuinely wants to help in times of crisis. At the pandemic’s worst point, 4.6 million people volunteered for the first time. Their impact was significant. The only reason the vaccine programme was rolled out so quickly was thanks to volunteers. And thousands more individuals from community organisations supported vulnerable people who were isolating in their homes.
Post-pandemic, these volunteers can continue to play a vital role in helping the UK tackle urgent challenges.
Volunteers supporting staff
The current waiting list crisis has understandably raised widespread concerns about the negative impact on patients, including loneliness. Research shows that the emotional wellbeing of patients significantly impacts their chance of recovery, with loneliness increasing the likelihood of early death by 26%. Volunteers can play an invaluable role here by providing compassionate support to patients on waiting lists and helping them before they get to hospital.
A great example of this is the Waiting Well scheme, operated by 22 NHS trusts across England. Trained volunteers contact patients to assure them that they haven’t been forgotten. They provide updates, answer questions and share information on the necessary preparation for their upcoming hospital visit. In this way, they minimise anxiety and offer companionship.
In hospitals, volunteers can provide additional support to complement the role of talented but over-stretched professional staff. Volunteers can save staff time – up to 93 minutes per interaction. In addition, they enhance the patient experience, making it even more personalised and effective. For example, volunteers can assist patients at mealtimes, ensuring they have enough nutrition and are hydrated, which helps faster recovery.
They can also support staff with tasks such as pharmacy runs, delivering lab samples, helping patients to move wards, or stocking up PPE cupboards. As a result, 94% of staff agreed that volunteers supported them to feel less stressed when they were busy. So it’s no surprise that NHS staff consistently tell us that they value the contribution of this group of people.
Emotional wellbeing of patients
Volunteers can be particularly beneficial to patients’ emotional wellbeing. With over 100,000 vacancies in the NHS, staff are stretching to fill gaps and cover unfilled roles. The result is a workforce constantly pushing themselves to the limit in stressful clinical situations.
In this scenario, volunteers are a vital element in providing high-quality care. That might be in clinical settings, such as encouraging patients to do their prescribed physiotherapy exercises. Or they can become companions, offering a listening ear to patients without visitors. This is especially valuable to vulnerable patients facing lengthy hospital stays or whose loved ones can’t visit.
And it goes far beyond a chat at the bedside. Volunteers’ input can help improve medical outcomes, as emotional wellbeing is critical to physical recovery. Indeed, loneliness and living alone and poor social connections are as bad for someone’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Volunteers in primary care
Following hospital discharge, volunteers can continue to support patients in different ways. For example, they might assist people in moving back into their own homes, helping them to feel reassured. And they can link them with local services and identify gaps in appropriate aftercare.
Including volunteers in the design of primary care can have a significant impact. Their work might include helping people to be more active and healthier at home 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. Their support includes picking up medication and taking patients to appointments or community events to help them stay connected and active.
Yet despite all these proven benefits, volunteers are still an untapped resource across far too many health and care settings. This must change – and fast. In the face of the exceptional challenges facing the NHS, we must harness the unique power of volunteers.
To help primary care networks (PCNs) and GP practices to be more connected with their local communities, NHS England has made funding available for the appointment of social prescribing link workers. This group of people are already beginning to help encourage increased volunteering in primary care, providing a bridge between practice-based clinical staff and their communities.
And there is significant potential to scale this up. A greater role for volunteers across health and care services could prove transformative. We cannot squander the potential.
Helpforce is an independent, non-profit organisation that partners with health and care organisations across the UK to accelerate the impact of volunteering. Find out more at: https://helpforce.community/