Thursday, 14 March 2013

NHS should not underestimate value of volunteers

NHS should not underestimate value of volunteers: Volunteers are helping to deliver care in hospitals and in the community, but the health service does not always make the most of their knowledge and expertise.

The Francis report published in February was a stark reminder that healthcare is not just about treatment and cure for patients. The report may well prove to be a turning point for prioritising compassion in healthcare. One way to take this forward is to support the work some hospitals are already doing to support patients with volunteers.
Our Volunteering in Health and Care report, published on Thursday, has found that the scale of volunteering in health and social care is impressive; an estimated three million people in England volunteer in both the voluntary sector and public services. This compares to 1.6 million people working in the NHS and 1.2 million in social care.
They add significant value to the work of paid employees in a way that is often not fully understood or appreciated. For example, during 2011, King's College hospital recruited more than 500 new volunteers and saw measurable improvements in patient experience scores in those areas where volunteers had been involved in providing care.
The roles of volunteers in hospitals are diverse, but our research found that they can often add a more human dimension to care. One patient we interviewed explained it succinctly:
I was totally at sea ... tearfully at sea and there was no time, none of the professionals actually had time to sit and talk, so I think that's a very important area of volunteers' work.
Volunteers can also assist with mealtimes in hospitals, providing support for bereaved families and befriending older people in care homes. In the wider community, volunteers can play an important role in delivering health messages and changing unhealthy behaviours. They can help ease the transition from hospital to community for vulnerable or isolated patients and can increase take-up of HIV testing or sexual health services from marginalised communities.
Volunteers from the local community often have the trust and understanding needed to engage people and they provide valuable support to paid professionals. There is extensive evidence of the health and social benefits to patients, communities and volunteers from volunteering. However, our research shows that we are not always maximising the knowledge and expertise of the volunteering community and there are huge opportunities for volunteering to help transform health and social care services and bring about real improvement for patients and the wider public.
Good quality volunteering will not happen without investment and it should be approached as a means of improving quality rather than reducing costs. Volunteering services need to be properly resourced and managed to ensure that volunteers are adequately supported, and that the value they bring is understood by providers, commissioners and staff. The pool of volunteers is also changing, with a more diverse with different skills and expectations, needing more effort to match them to the appropriate roles.
The infrastructure to support volunteering, particularly in the voluntary sector, is at risk and some are in desperate need of funding. Many organisations also lack a strategic vision for the role of volunteering and miss the opportunities that exist. In the current context it is more important than ever to think strategically about the role of volunteering. As NHS organisations try to digest and respond to Francis's recommendations, they should not overlook the importance and value of volunteers.
Lisa Weaks, is third sector programme manager at the King's Fund. Volunteering in Health and Care - Securing a Sustainable Future report was researched and published by the King's Fund and funded by the Department of Health. Guardian Professional. 

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