Giving health service volunteers the recognition they deserve

With much talk in the media about the pressures facing the NHS, it is timely to pay tribute to the thousands of people throughout the country who contribute their time, skills and compassion to the health service, and to consider what more is required to maximise their impact.

The volunteering landscape in the NHS

Figures quoted in NHS England’s Five-Year Forward View, published in October 2014, suggest that there are 3 million volunteers across the country engaged in volunteering activities throughout the health and social care sectors.  The roles that they play vary greatly, from participation in large-scale planning and advice to providing visiting and befriending services. Volunteers play a part at every level of the health service: both strategic and frontline.

A quick Google search for volunteering in the NHS offers up a range of volunteering programmes within hospitals and foundation trusts, with information on how to get involved. King’s College Hospital has been held up as a beacon for its volunteer engagement: as of October 2014, it had 1,500 volunteers, each giving 16 hours a month in a frontline capacity, working directly with patients on wards or in waiting areas, and collectively clocking up over 200,000 volunteer hours a year.

The voluntary sector in partnership with the NHS

It’s not just volunteers within hospitals who support and strengthen the UK’s health service. Volunteers are also involved in a range of voluntary organisations providing essential services alongside the NHS.

A recent report published by the Royal Voluntary Service highlights the benefits of Home from Hospital schemes, which provide a transition from an inpatient stay to a return to independent life. Such programmes are impossible without teams of dedicated volunteers providing both practical and emotional support during the weeks and months after discharge. Not only have such schemes been shown to reduce emergency readmissions to hospitals, but they can also help to reduce pressure on beds in the short term: over 62,000 beds were lost in the past four weeks to patients who were ready to be discharged but needed additional assistance in that discharge.

The impact of volunteers has also been more direct. In recent weeks, the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust Foundation has reported that both British Red Cross and St John Ambulance volunteers have been crucial in reducing the pressure on emergency services in Sheffield.

Investing in health care volunteers

With so much public benefit being derived from volunteers, it’s crucial that we don’t underestimate the support and investment required in involving them effectively. Simon Stevens, the new CEO of NHS England, writing in the Five Year Forward View mentioned above, recognised that ‘the health service certainly can’t do everything that is needed by itself’, and calls for the NHS to build stronger partnerships with voluntary organisations and encourage more community volunteering within health care provision.

Such engagement will need resourcing. Involving and managing volunteers in the health service (as indeed in any setting) is a complex and skilled task, as was made clear in an excellent NCVO guest blog post last year by Carol Rawlings, chair of NAVSM, the support body for volunteer managers in the NHS. Securing this investment at a time of austerity will be challenging but is essential if we are serious about capitalising on the contribution volunteering can play.

A community health service

NCVO, along with other leading voluntary organisations, is in discussion with the Department of Health about what more can be done to strengthen the role of the voluntary sector and volunteering in the health service. There is a short-term requirement to help alleviate the pressures currently being experienced, but also a longer-term strategic goal about harnessing the experience and talent within the sector to shape the health service of the future.

This will involve addressing issues of culture, systems, commissioning frameworks, management, leadership and, yes, resources. No one is claiming that volunteers alone are the answer to the challenges being faced by the health service. But without them we will surely fail to deliver the community health service of the future we all desire.

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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

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