Volunteering must become a priority across health and care

Maeve Hully, director of volunteering, Helpforce explains the benefits of volunteering for patients, the workforce and the health service as a whole


Nobody can be under any illusion about the scale of the challenges that face the NHS and social care. Millions of people are waiting for treatment they desperately need, and A&E and ambulances services are overwhelmed. Meanwhile, millions of vacancies remain unfilled, impeding the treatment and support available to some of society’s most vulnerable people. In a recent survey for NHS Confederation, 99 per cent of healthcare leaders agreed there is a social care workforce crisis in their area and almost all said it is worse now than it was 12 months ago.
Thérèse Coffey, the previous health and social care secretary, set out a new plan for patients. This included a call for a ‘national endeavour’ to support the health and social care system, encouraging the one million volunteers who stepped up during the pandemic to support the NHS to come forward again.

The power of volunteering
We have already seen the huge power of volunteering throughout the pandemic, when local residents organised to support elderly or vulnerable neighbours. We also saw thousands of volunteers support the vaccination programme. Now we must unlock that power to combat exceptional challenges ahead and build the resilience and connectivity of our communities.
However, there is no point in calling people to volunteer without effective roles ready for them. These challenges are complex and require multiple solutions, but harnessing the power of volunteering is an essential part of the answer. To maximise volunteering, we need government, local authorities, health and care leaders and community organisations to unite to put in place well-designed and properly managed volunteer initiatives.
Helpforce, which exists to maximise volunteering to its full potential, has been working with health and care leaders to harness the power of volunteering for the benefit of patients for many years. We are seeing first-hand the measurable improvements in the delivery of care that volunteers bring for staff and patients.

Vital role
It is a little-known fact that volunteers are already playing a vital role in supporting people at home as they wait for NHS care at a time of record waiting lists. For example, we are supporting five Waiting Well pilots across England, helping to connect volunteers with patients to provide a range of services to make their wait more comfortable – from therapeutic wellbeing and health coaching to nutrition support and falls prevention.
Currently, four out of every five patients do not receive any support while they wait for treatment – which can mean the need for more complicated surgery, worse outcomes, increased used of medication and increased anxiety. Waiting Well volunteers are vital in reducing pressures on GPs and social care.

Providing support
Volunteers can provide practical and emotional support to people on waiting lists, minimising anxiety and providing companionship to people who are concerned about their treatment. With more than six million people currently on waiting lists, and delays causing heightened patient worry and the need for more complex surgery, there is a huge potential for volunteers to help.  
Volunteering can assist pressures at every stage of the patient journey. In hospitals too, volunteers working alongside medical staff, can provide additional support to make treatment more effective, efficient and personalised, and can even reduce the need for treatment. There are a wide range of volunteer roles already available to tackle urgent concerns.
Helpforce’s research shows that volunteers can free up almost 30 minutes per nurse per day and can speed up patient discharge. One of the most developed parts of our volunteering support are those response volunteers within hospital. Examples of their work include pharmacy runs for clinicians or nurses and admin activity which can be a huge time saver.
NHS staff consistently tell us that they value the contribution of volunteers. 79 per cent of staff strongly agree that volunteers support them in their work. The vast majority of patients who receive volunteer support say they are shown excellent care and compassion.

Avoiding readmission
An emerging growth area is the work to support patients after they are discharged to reduce the risk of readmission. Helpforce is working to roll out a discharge call service, where volunteers call patients within 72 hours of being discharged to check they are OK and provide signposting to community services where needed. This has increased understanding about what might be behind readmissions with issues identified such as gaps in appropriate aftercare, missed discharged medical advice leaflets or wellbeing checks to advise on recovery needs. Once the volunteers find out what is needed, they can pass on requests/next steps to the community so that the care for patients is fully integrated.
But while there are some great examples of volunteers being used to improve outcomes for patients and staff, volunteering still isn’t being prioritised or properly integrated anywhere near enough in NHS trusts or community settings. This is a major missed opportunity.
Volunteering must become a priority in every health and care organisation. It should be seen as an essential component of health and care, not a ‘nice to have’. We need to ensure that there are high-impact roles for volunteers across the UK. There should be a more joined-up approach which integrates volunteers across trusts and community services, to ensure that volunteers can support people before they come to hospital and after they leave.
The volunteer response to the pandemic and the vaccination programme demonstrated that there is an extensive resource of skills in our communities. Helpforce’s hope is that the success of these projects will help to demonstrate the power of volunteering and that they can be scaled up across the UK. We cannot afford to squander that potential. We must unlock the huge power of volunteering to combat exceptional challenges ahead.
Helpforce is a national charity which partners with health and care organisations to transform how they deliver volunteer services.