One way that NHS organisations can improve the quality of compassionate care is to invest in volunteers. The Fund’s new research on volunteering in health and care in England argues that volunteers are well placed to help organisations meet a number of Francis’s key recommendations, especially those in the areas of compassionate caring, delivering better information and signposting, and supporting cultures of openness and transparency. Volunteers could help the NHS to ensure that the patient really does come first.
Volunteers have been contributing a lot for a long time to the NHS and across care services. Citizenship surveys suggest that there are around three million people who regularly volunteer in health and social care in the voluntary and public sector, though critically what they are doing and where they are doing it is much less well understood. Our research includes case studies that show how organisations are working with volunteers to deliver high-quality care and improve patient experience.
Volunteers can offer an additional ‘human touch’ in the business of health care. They often spend time talking and listening to patients, and are a valuable non-clinical confidante for those who feel vulnerable or isolated. They perform a range of tasks, including sharing their own experiences and stories with patients, gathering information for them, and providing help to eat and drink. Many patients we spoke to suggested their care was all the better for having the support of a volunteer.
Volunteers should not be seen as substitutes for paid staff, but they can be a core part of the care team. In our research we found that patients and volunteers valued their contribution differently to that of professionals, often because it was part of a gift relationship, not a contractual one. The fact that volunteers are there out of goodwill matters a lot to patients. Many staff agreed. Paid professionals told us that volunteers let them get on with the core business of caring. A volunteer who can complete logistical tasks frees up a nurse’s time and allows them to get back to the bedside, where the patients want them to be.
However, it’s not as simple as getting a volunteer through the hospital door and leaving them to it. The organisations that used volunteers most successfully were those that were thinking strategically about the role of volunteers, facing up to complex questions (including the contested boundary between professionals and non-professionals) and investing in support structures for their volunteer services. They were ensuring that volunteers were adequately supported, trained and acknowledged. They were identifying the unique contributions volunteers can make, and including volunteers in meetings as part of the core care team. They were actively recruiting a broad and representative range of volunteers from the communities they served, and attempting to use the potential of peer-to-peer support. In these organisations, volunteers were not being used as part of a cost-cutting exercise; they were being called upon for their ability to add value to patient care.
This is an area of development for the NHS, and a lot of progress needs to be made across health and care organisations if the true value of volunteering is to be realised. During our research we saw signs of a growing cultural change, one where volunteers are increasingly positioned as part of the care team, and are part of the strategies used to improve patient experience – an important agent in the delivery of compassionate high-quality services. Our report puts forward a number of recommendations to help organisations make the most of volunteers and by doing so improve their business of caring – we hope Robert Francis would think it a worthwhile read.