As the NHS struggles with growing demands on its limited resources, involving voluntary sector could help stop the NHS grinding to a halt, writes Pam Creaven

Every week we hear tales of how NHS England and clinical commissioning groups are struggling to make sure our overstretched primary care services cope with growing demand using their limited resources.

Pam Creaven

‘Now is the time to find new solutions to a crisis that threatens to bring the NHS to a grinding halt’

If ever there was a moment for new solutions to a crisis that threatens to bring the NHS to a grinding halt, it is now.

The starting line

We believe a good place to start is the UK’s ageing population. While many people are living longer than ever in good health, many others are frail, cope with multiple conditions and require regular support and care to remain well, independent and out of accident and emergency wards.

Yet, the evidence is that most GPs simply do not have the time to provide that much needed support. So who can?

I would suggest it is an ideal role for the voluntary sector including organisations such as Age UK. And not just because resources are tight.

We have the expertise to deal with exactly these kinds of needs but also the flexibility and commitment that comes with highly motivated volunteers.

This means we can offer highly personalised and people focused support shaped by the person and volunteer together, which is extremely challenging to achieve in an overstretched NHS.

‘Improving the care and health of vulnerable people is the only real way to ease the burden on the NHS’

Using this expertise, voluntary organisations can work alongside and complement GPs and other locally based health and care professionals and, critically, ease the burden on the NHS.

But I would argue that Age UK and other suitably qualified voluntary organisations can play an even more strategic role.

Game changers

I believe we can help to instigate the drive towards integration of services for people, groups and even neighbourhoods, which is critical if we are to improve the care and health of vulnerable people – the only real way to ease the burden on the NHS.

This is the essence of what we are doing in Cornwall where we have played a central role in developing Kernow CCG’s integrated care pathway, funding our partner Age UK Cornwall and The Isles of Scilly to deliver it, winning last year’s HSJ Award for managing long term conditions.

The pathway is focused on people who are likely to become high users of health and social care. Its aim is to support them to have a better quality of life and reduce unnecessary dependence on statutory services.

The Cornwall Pathfinder programme began in 2012 with a 100-person pilot, which has since been scaled up to support 1,000 older people with multiple long term conditions in West Cornwall. Plans are underway to expand it to three other regions this year.

‘The voluntary sector’s involvement could prove to be the blueprint to ease some of the NHS’s gridlock’

If they turn out to be as successful as preliminary results indicate it could be a game changer.

It could signal how voluntary services can step in and step up to complement medical services with the non-medical and practical support that local Age UK organisations can offer. It can help them ensure that those in their care get the most appropriate and best treatment and prevent them falling through the cracks.

The King’s Fund recently produced a major report on the use of volunteers in health and care, so we are not alone in thinking that the voluntary sector has an important role to play.

It could just prove to be the blueprint to ease some of the gridlock in the NHS.

Pam Creaven is director of services at Age UK