‘Volunteer army’ is a valuable asset for the NHS

With the right support, volunteers play a complementary role in care, says Liz Charalambous

Volunteers must continue to play a complementary role in the NHS, despite concerns about relying too much on them

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Hospital volunteers have been making valuable contributions to patient care for decades, since before the inception of the NHS.

From chaplaincy support to pet therapy and companionship, volunteers provide a huge range of services. People from all walks of life offer their time, effort, skills and talents for the benefit of patients, staff and carers.

National strategy

A year ago, non-profit community interest company Helpforce pledged to double the number of volunteers in NHS hospitals by 2021 – from an estimated 78,000 to more than 150,000.

The company has created a national strategy to streamline and coordinate hospital volunteering, and recently joined forces with the Daily Mail newspaper to launch a campaign to encourage people to volunteer in their local hospitals in 2019.

Many hospitals have already signed up to the campaign, which is backed by healthcare organisations including NHS England and the Patients Association. Unison and the RCN are also giving their support. 

However, there has been criticism on social media about articles in the Daily Mail promoting the campaign, particularly one by RCN acting chief executive and general secretary Dame Donna Kinnair.

Lack of consultation

Concerns have been expressed on Twitter and Facebook about a lack of consultation with RCN members before the college gave the campaign its backing.

Rising concern about an ‘army of volunteers’ in NHS hospitals is understandable. It is not so long ago that Jimmy Savile, as a hospital volunteer, was allowed unprecedented access to vulnerable patients. We must never forget the lessons learned from this and ensure such abuse and systemic failure is never repeated.

‘In an era of evidence-based practice, we need to know if this sort of service is supported by research’

People are also rightly concerned about the erosion of healthcare services if we begin to rely on increasing numbers of volunteers to support NHS services, and that they should be properly remunerated for their efforts.

Then there are worries about confidentiality, safeguarding, the potential for serious error and the types of roles volunteers might undertake. Indeed, in an era of evidence-based practice, we need to know if this sort of service is supported by research.

A study published in June established an evidence base to support the efficacy of volunteers in delirium prevention, yet much more needs to be known about the areas of hospital volunteering.

Strict recruitment procedures

As part of my PhD thesis, I have been researching the phenomenon of volunteers supporting patients with dementia and cognitive impairment in acute hospital wards. I have spent a great deal of time reading, researching and working closely with hospital volunteers.

Services are carefully managed, with strict recruitment procedures in place, and all volunteers are checked for criminal records and undertake mandatory training. Once in the clinical area, volunteers are supervised by experienced clinicians and have the support of a voluntary services management team.

People have a range of motivations for volunteering. Many say they would not volunteer at all if they were paid as it would detract from their sense of enjoyment and freedom of choice. Volunteering also enables students to gain valuable experience before they undertake healthcare-related university courses, such as medicine and nursing, and it can help them decide if such a career path is for them.

Complementary service

In the current political and economic climate, it seems that the NHS will continue to need support from the public. Even if we lived in more certain times, I still see a need for volunteers.

They add to the already rich diversity of the hospital workforce and are a useful way of encouraging public involvement in the NHS. But the underlying view is that if all volunteers were pulled out of the NHS, services would still continue.

Volunteers provide an important extra and it is crucial that they continue as a complementary service and are trained, supported, managed, supervised and appreciated.

Liz Charalambous is a staff nurse in Nottingham



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