If we unlock the full potential of volunteers in the NHS, we could embed a culture where hospitals and communities work more closely together. By Paddy Hanrahan 

Woman sitting looking up at someone, their hand on her shoulder

Volunteers in healthcare are good for everyone: patients, NHS staff, and for those that volunteer. Volunteering in the health service is nothing new, and NHS England has already made volunteering a key part of its 70th anniversary celebrations.

However, volunteering within healthcare has never benefited from the same status as volunteering in charities, schools, and other public services. We feel secure knowing that volunteer lifeguards and firefighters will save our lives, and that volunteer police protect our communities, but too few volunteers are allowed near the “front line” of the NHS.

There is wide variation in the scale and effectiveness of volunteering programmes in NHS hospitals today. While a few hospital trusts are pushing boundaries and allowing volunteers to play a greater role in supporting front line staff, these are often isolated cases. Most patients will go through their hospital journey and never meet a volunteer. For those with less family around to support them, this is a missed opportunity given the wonderful support that volunteers offer.

Today, there are an estimated 78,000 volunteers helping in NHS hospitals. But the value of volunteering must not be measured by headcount alone. To maximise the value of volunteers, we need to better integrate them with hospital staff and services; create roles that can best support patients, staff and pathways; and ensure that all volunteers receive the training, support and opportunities to maximise their own experience and development.

Interventions involving volunteers

HelpForce is a not-for-profit, Community Interest Company set up in 2017 by Sir Tom Hughes-Hallett. Our mission is to better integrate safe, secure and trained volunteers into our health service.

One of the innovations we have developed over the last 10 months with one of our partners is to introduce the concept of interventions involving volunteers. We worked with five NHS trusts to think beyond the standard set of volunteer roles, and instead codesign new interventions on the patient pathway, from community to hospital to home, where volunteers can add significant value.

At three of our five pilot trusts (Northumbria Healthcare Foundation Trust, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital FT, and Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals Trust) our partner’s health team helped us run workshops with large groups of hospital staff to codesign these interventions.

We looked at the acute patient journey to identify “pinch points” where staff and patients will most benefit from extra support. Working with nurses, ward managers and volunteer service management, we developed ideas that could become targeted interventions that involve volunteers. These included:

  • Emergency departments – Emergency departments can be a distressing environment for patients, particularly those with dementia or mental health issues. Trained volunteers can help engage and inform patients, reduce stress, and support hard-pressed staff.
  • Patient support – A lot of patients, particularly those in later life, can become stuck in hospital due to their condition worsening following insufficient hydration and nutrition, and a lack of exercise. Volunteers have been proven to improve intake of water and food, and there is a national push for greater exercise in hospitals (such as the current Pyjama Paralysis campaign) that volunteers trained by physiotherapists can contribute to.
  • Outpatients – Coming to hospital can be daunting: volunteers can help patients get ready for their appointments and provide respite to carers and families. They can also signpost patients between services in the community and in hospitals, and can help reduce DNAs by getting in touch with patients in advance of the appointment.
  • Loneliness – Volunteers can provide important emotional support for patients who don’t have their own network. They can play games, chat, give massages, and be a regular friendly presence.
  • Discharge – Some patients leave the hospital and aren’t sure of their next steps. Volunteers can help get patients back home, helping with tasks such as collecting prescriptions, transport, and settling them.

Over the next 18 months, we aim to increase the number of pilot sites from five to 15 NHS trusts. We will test, evidence, and scale up these and more interventions to maximise the value of volunteering in the NHS. This will enable volunteers in hospitals across the country to play a greater role in helping patients out of hospital and home, better support frontline staff, and improve services.

If we unlock the full potential of volunteers in the NHS, we could embed a culture where hospitals and communities work more closely together. We could inspire more people, from more diverse backgrounds, to think of the NHS as a place they want to volunteer, and give something back to a national institution they so love and cherish. A future where every patient could have a volunteer to provide companionship and help them through the hospital and back home. And a workplace where staff look to create roles for volunteers that support their duties and allow them to focus more of their time on providing expert care.