Expert advice

Workforce: Unpaid volunteers an attractive option for NHS, but need training

Policy attention is increasingly focusing on the contribution of volunteers to help expand the NHS workforce. But like all health service employees they must be trained to be part of the team, says workforce expert James Buchan

Policy attention is increasingly focusing on the contribution of volunteers to help expand the NHS workforce. But like all health service employees they must be trained to be part of the team, says workforce expert James Buchan


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The winter flu crisis has reinforced the urgent need to expand the NHS workforce, with policy attention increasingly focusing on the contribution of volunteers. At a time of staff shortages and cost containment, the attraction of using unpaid local volunteers is all too obvious.

The draft NHS workforce strategy for England, published at the end of last year, sets out proposals to ‘better support the education and training needs of volunteers, carers and patients’.

High impact

Health Education England, which devised the draft strategy, says it will work on a new independent initiative to promote ‘high impact volunteering’ across the NHS. The focus of this proposal is HelpForce, a new community interest company founded last year.

The aim is to use volunteers to ease so-called ‘pinch points’ in the NHS – from the queue at a hospital reception or delays in discharge caused by lack of transport, to collecting prescriptions from the hospital pharmacy.

Several NHS trusts have joined an initial network piloting this more systematic use of volunteers, to identify and share best practice. The overall aim is to double the number of volunteers in hospitals from an estimated 78,000 to more than 150,000 by 2021.

Staff suspicious

HelpForce says there is considerable research showing that volunteering can have an impact on the well-being of both patients and the volunteers themselves. It notes there is less evidence about the impact on NHS staff, but says some ‘tend to be suspicious’ about increased use of volunteers.

This suspicion stems from concern that volunteers will be a cheap replacement for paid health professionals. But with NHS staff vacancies running at almost 10%, more pairs of hands are needed.

The key will be to ensure that volunteers, like all those working in the NHS, are trained to be part of the team.


James Buchan is professor in the faculty of health and social sciences at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh 

 

 

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