Voluntary contributions: adding value to patient experience

The success of the Royal Free Charity shows how volunteers can help improve service provision

The success of the Royal Free Charity shows how volunteers can help improve service provision

Picture: iStock

Today, a dozen Royal Free Charity volunteers will assist clinical staff in the emergency department at the Royal Free Hospital, London.

As well as supporting clinical teams, they will also provide patients with companionship, conversation, and access to books and magazines.

These volunteers are adept at reassuring patients during busy periods, and signposting patients and carers to other support services offered by the charity.

Another 20 volunteers will work on our wards for older people and an additional 40 will volunteer across the hospital. A further 50 volunteers will be at the other Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust hospitals, Barnet Hospital and Chase Farm Hospital.

Increased investment

The Royal Free Charity took over their management in the Royal Free five years ago. Since then, we have increased investment in the service four fold and, as a result, have more than 800 regular volunteers registered and a waiting list of people wanting to help us.

We treat our volunteers as members of the Royal Free family and aim to give each one a fantastic experience. We pay for travel, meals and refreshments, and invest in uniforms, training and support.

We have also ensured 20% of our volunteers are under 25 to reflect the demographics of north London. This has brought us new skills, which in turn helps the nurses and other staff hospital deliver better patient care. For example, our younger volunteers are skilled at helping patients access online services and navigate services across the hospitals.

Reaping benefits

We are fortunate that the leadership team of the trust believe in volunteering and the difference it can make to hospitals. They have been brave in handing the whole service to us and letting us get on with running it.

They haven’t micro-managed us, but have trusted in us, and we are all now reaping the benefits of their bravery.

We have won a series of awards and plaudits for our work but, more importantly, we have freed staff up to do what they do best. We also have volunteers who are getting more out of their experience and a much wider pool of people taking part.

The journey has been demanding, but rewarding, and we now have a volunteer service that adds value to the patient experience.

Over the next five years we plan to double the number of volunteers to more than 1,500 and we will deploy them in new roles and different areas of the NHS, such as primary and social care.

Matching demographics

I do not see these changes taking place across the NHS, however. Instead, I see managers struggling to administer their volunteers, and the wrong volunteers in the wrong roles, which puts unnecessary pressure on nurses and other clinical team members.

I also see a failure to match the demographics of the volunteers to those of local communities.

Nevertheless, the roles played by volunteers in the NHS is increasingly spoken about at the highest levels. More third-sector organisations are involved in care provision and more NHS charities are investing in volunteering in their local hospitals than ever before.

In this, the 70th anniversary of the NHS, we have had 47 NHS organisations launch young volunteering schemes.

Our ambition must be that, by the time of NHS75, the country’s most popular area to volunteer in is the institution the country loves the most: the NHS.

About the author

Chris_BurghesChris Burghes is chief executive of the Royal Free Charity, London

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