Staff Want 'Clarity' Over Role of Hospital Volunteers

Peter Russell

December 04, 2018

Volunteers in hospitals play an important role in comforting and supporting patients, and could help staff by freeing up their time to prioritise medical care, according to a report from The King's Fund.

The study found majority support for volunteering among frontline health professionals but unease about where the roles of volunteers blurred with those of paid staff.

The King's Fund said the findings were timely, with volunteering and other forms of social action expected to feature in the forthcoming NHS long-term plan.

The report, commissioned by the Royal Voluntary Service and Helpforce, was based on a survey of 296 hospital staff in 34 NHS trusts and foundation trusts in England. Nurses, doctors, and support staff took part.

Perception of Hospital Volunteers

The study, The role of volunteers in the NHS , found strong support for volunteering among frontline staff, who reported that hospital volunteers provided valuable practical help such as picking up medicines, providing drinks in waiting areas and offering companionship to patients.

Among respondents, 58% said that the most important role for volunteers was 'bringing human kindness into busy hospital life'.

This was followed by 'increasing patient satisfaction by providing vital non-medical support on wards' (39%), and 'freeing up staff time to spend on clinical care' (32%).

The results revealed that 90% of staff believed volunteering added a lot of value for patients, and 74% thought it added value for staff.

However, support for volunteering was not consistent across all healthcare roles, with doctors and scientific, therapeutic and technical staff less likely to rate their contribution as highly as nurses, clinical support staff, and infrastructure support staff.

The majority of staff said they enjoyed working with volunteers, which was largely attributed to the positive attitude they brought to hospital life.

A Competing or a Complementary Role?

The main challenge and source of possible friction was identified as a lack of clarity around boundaries between the roles of staff and volunteers, which was cited by 47% of respondents.

During follow-up interviews with some of those taking part, staff concerns about volunteers 'taking away' paid roles were identified. Others highlighted concerns about volunteers getting involved in tasks they did not have suitable expertise for, such as feeding patients with complex needs or on specialised diets.

Overall, frontline staff felt volunteers would have more impact through better training and greater joined-up working between staff and volunteers.

Report 'Highlights Opportunities and Challenges'

Richard Murray, director of policy at The King's Fund said: "Despite the growing focus being placed on the value of volunteering in NHS hospitals, we still have much to learn about how frontline staff feel about volunteers. Understanding this is critical if the welcome step-change in health policy and support for volunteering is to translate to practical success on the ground.

"We found that frontline staff clearly appreciate the human kindness volunteers bring into busy hospital life, provided they are not being used as a substitute for paid staff.

"We encourage NHS bosses to sit up and take note of the critical role their staff say volunteers play in enhancing patient experience."

Catherine Johnstone, chief executive of the Royal Voluntary Service said: "The report highlights both opportunities and challenges, which we need to embrace and tackle if we want to successfully scale up voluntary service in hospitals.

"Supporting Trusts to develop effective volunteering strategies, providing greater clarity around the role volunteers can and should play, providing the right training to help volunteers perform those roles and developing bespoke service offerings to get more volunteers on to wards, are all areas where we can add significant value."

Sir Tom Hughes-Hallett, founder of Helpforce said: "As the needs of our ageing population grow, and the NHS is asked to provide more care for more people, it is vital that NHS leaders take the role of volunteers seriously, invest in them, and integrate them into the heart of their organisations.

"I hope this report will galvanise the executive level support necessary to create a step-change in volunteering in our NHS."

The report made a number of recommendations to NHS trust leaders to help them maximise the impact of volunteers in their hospitals.

It called for all NHS acute hospital trusts to have an adequately resourced volunteering strategy and to ensure frontline staff were trained and empowered to develop supportive working relationships with volunteers.

The Royal Voluntary Service and Helpforce recently announced a partnership to explore how to increase the number of volunteers in the NHS to ease pressure points in the system.

The Daily Mail is currently running a campaign to encourage its readers to become hospital volunteers in the run-up to Christmas and the New Year, which traditionally heralds a period of intense winter pressure on the NHS.

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