Volunteers come to the aid of patients and staff

The HelpForce initiative aims to double the number of volunteers supporting NHS patients, co-ordinate their work with that of paid staff and involve them in crucial areas such as discharge

The HelpForce initiative aims to double the number of volunteers supporting NHS patients, co-ordinate their work with that of paid staff and involve them in crucial areas such as discharge

Picture: iStock

For the family of a child with cancer, an overflowing garden shed or unruly lawn might not seem the most pressing of problems. But according to senior nurse David Widdas, it can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

‘One parent called it a job too far,’ says Mr Widdas, a consultant nurse in the children’s community nursing team at South Warwickshire NHS Foundation Trust. ‘They had this garden shed that had to be cleared, and they really needed the space. It’s the same for so many families – there’s something driving them mad, but they simply don’t have the time or the energy to deal with it.’

While it certainly isn’t the responsibility of the NHS to clear sheds or cut grass – much as it might improve the lives of families – it is something that the trust’s growing army of volunteers has been more than happy to deal with.

‘We’re in a good place – volunteering is reaching a critical mass. It’s an exciting time’

David Widdas

The trust’s community children’s nursing team has introduced volunteer roles that involve working with families of children with complicated health conditions. It is part of its overall drive to increase the number of volunteers, and patients, families and staff are feeling the benefit.

South Warwickshire is not alone in increasing its volunteer workforce. December saw the launch of HelpForce, a community interest company with the ambitious aim of doubling the number of volunteers working in the NHS by 2021, from the current figure of around 78,000.

HelpForce, set up by Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallett, chair of Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and a former chief executive of Marie Curie,  is working with 12 trusts initially to develop new volunteer roles and develop best practice models for volunteering in hospitals and other NHS settings (see box).

Where to start

Sir Thomas, an ebullient former investor banker who also has philanthropist and barrister on his extensive CV, believes that volunteering is good for patients, health service staff and the volunteers themselves.

‘At Marie Curie, our paid staff were amazing but we couldn’t have done all the things we did, particularly in hospices, without the amazing generosity of the British public,’ he says.

‘When I joined Chelsea and Westminster I thought it would be heaving with volunteers, but that wasn’t the case, although there were some fantastic volunteers. At the same time, there were people saying they’d love to volunteer but wouldn’t know where to start. I let it bubble away for a year and a half, but I knew it was something I really wanted to do.’

Missed opportunity

He was interviewed on the subject on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in 2015, which brought an ‘extraordinary reaction’, he says, with near-universal support for his ideas. Illness caused the project to be put on hold for a time, but with the encouragement of his wife and of Jim Mackey, then chief executive of NHS Improvement, he decided to make it happen.

The volunteers currently working in the NHS are rarely integrated into NHS strategies or service delivery plans, which Sir Thomas sees as a missed opportunity.

HelpForce will initially be focusing on times when staff and patients would like more support, such as at mealtimes or on discharge. For example, when a patient is ready to go home they will be assigned a volunteer who will ease the process, such as by collecting prescriptions from the hospital pharmacy, accompanying the patient home and even stopping en route for a bottle of milk and a loaf if needed.

‘A volunteer can be a reliable, safe pair of hands’

Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallett

‘I’m not sure if we would have been able to do this five years ago,’ Sir Thomas says. ‘But the nursing workforce is so tired and overstretched. Patients are older and sicker, with more co-morbidities. A volunteer can be a reliable, safe pair of hands, but they have to be trained, and they have to be integrated into the service.’

Unplanned volunteering can bring more problems than it solves, he warns. ‘If a volunteer arrives on a ward then the charge nurse might react by saying “this is the last thing I need”. But if the volunteer jobs are created in consultation with the nursing and medical staff, to work for them and do what they see needs to be done, then that is a different matter.’

Unions, including the RCN and Unison, have welcomed the idea and have been helpful, says Sir Thomas, who stresses that volunteers are in no way replacing roles that are and ought to be paid.

Extra layer of comfort

At the launch, RCN general secretary Janet Davies said: ‘The development of properly co-ordinated staff-volunteer teams means we will be able to give vulnerable patients extra support when they need it without increasing the burden on our staff.’

Carrie Smith is voluntary services manager at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, one of the HelpForce pilot sites. She explains that her trust is introducing a new ward-based volunteer role that combines mealtime assistance, getting patients up and moving, and befriending. It builds on previous successful work to introduce mealtime assistants. ‘We want patients to keep eating, drinking and moving,’ she says.

‘Some volunteers think they will just come in to befriend people – to cheer up an older person,’ she says. ‘But we’re saying we’ll train you up so that you can help to feed people, for example.

‘It’s not replacing nurses – it’s providing an extra layer of TLC, an extra layer of comfort – the way that a relative would if they were there at mealtimes.’

‘The nurses like it because they have more time to support patients with greater needs – and it makes mealtimes more sociable’

Carrie Smith

Volunteers span a wide age range, from school and college leavers who are thinking about careers in healthcare to retired people who want to give something back. Often they are retired healthcare workers, including nurses, says Ms Smith. ‘We ask people to commit to three hours a week for six months or more, because we are investing in training them.

‘The nurses like it because they have more time to support patients with greater needs – and it makes mealtimes more sociable.’

The trust runs a volunteer induction programme, which includes advice on issues such as maintaining boundaries with patients – ‘we want them to be friendly, but to think of themselves as a “professional” friend,’ says Ms Smith. The induction also covers safeguarding, infection control and data protection, as well as in-depth specialist training on nutrition and moving.

Research into the mealtimes assistant project showed that trained volunteers made a positive difference, improving the quality of mealtime care for patients and nursing staff.

Matching available roles

Mr Widdas at South Warwickshire has no doubt that a volunteer service is a valuable part of the workforce in the community as well as in hospitals, provided it is properly run and integrated. ‘I think volunteering is a brilliant thing, but you have to be clear that it’s different to what’s already being funded,’ he stresses.

‘It’s also important to look to sustainability, and to ensure the number of volunteers matches the available roles.’

Having already worked with the charity Together for Short Lives to focus on helping siblings of children with life-limiting conditions, the South Warwickshire trust will use HelpForce funding to take its volunteering programme to a new level, looking more widely at hands-on clinical care.

Mr Widdas says two retired nurses among the volunteers have been involved in developing a project to focus on transitions. ‘We’re in a good place – volunteering is reaching a critical mass,’ he says. ‘It’s an exciting time.’

Pilot projects explore best roles for volunteers

  • Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust is testing ‘bleep volunteers’, who support patients and staff with a range of tasks. It is focusing on using volunteers to help with patient discharge and transport.
  • Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust is developing volunteer roles at a treatment day centre and to support discharge at intermediate care units.
  • Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust is asking volunteers to help with mobility on wards, linking with the #endPJparalysis campaign encouraging patients to dress in day clothes instead of pyjamas.
  • West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust is looking at how volunteers can support discharge planning and work in the community to support early intervention teams and help link patients to community assets and services. 


Jennifer Trueland is a freelance journalist

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