The value of volunteering in acute trusts

Every NHS acute trust in England encourages people to volunteer – to contribute to their service and play an important part in improving patient experience. But how many people volunteer in acute trusts in England and what roles do they play?

Earlier this year, we published a report on volunteering that showed that that three million people volunteer for health, disability and welfare organisations in England, the same number as the combined NHS and social care workforce. Unfortunately, we know very little about who these volunteers are, what they do, and the impact they are having on services.

In our new research, we thought we would look at one part of the system – acute trusts – to start to understand more about these three million volunteers. We sent out a survey to 166 acute trusts in England, 99 trusts responded and, from these results, we learnt that there are on average 471 volunteers in each acute trust. If we extrapolate this figure it means that there are 78,000 volunteers across all acute trusts in England, who are contributing more than 13 million hours of volunteering per year.

The variation in numbers between these trusts is considerable, with some reporting as few as 35 volunteers, and others reporting 1,300. Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg and it does not shed light on the scale of volunteering in primary care, mental health trusts or volunteers who offer their time in a governance capacity in trusts. However, it does point out that some trusts may be benefiting more than others from the potential of volunteers. For example, one trust with around 2,000 staff has almost 1,000 volunteers, while one trust has less than half this number of volunteers but staff levels of 13,000. 

Volunteers engage in a wide range of roles, from befriending, signposting and administering patient surveys to providing specific services based on their professional background, like offering reiki, massage and reflexology to patients and carers to help improve their wellbeing. Our survey respondents strongly valued the time volunteers dedicated to patients, as one respondent mentioned: ‘The thing volunteers have got is time, which obviously the staff have not got on wards, so by having those volunteers there, it’s the little extras which are really making the difference –  for example, at meal times holding the patients’ hands and reading the menu to them’.

A specific example that touched me was the creative writing workshops organised at UCH Macmillan Cancer Centre, where patients of all ages, their family and carers get time to relax, have fun and think about something different together. The weekly creative word group is led by an experienced volunteer and supported by a staff member. The group produce poetry and prose and, in the words of one of the participants, has given them the opportunity to ‘sit at a table with other cancer patients and have a focus other than cancer. I generally feel lighter because it has helped take my mind off the “situation” and allowed it to take a freer, more creative path’. As a result of the impact of this group, the trust is now recruiting a poet in residence.

Other examples that touched me included the Ticker Club at Pennine Acute Hospital, where volunteers who have experienced a stroke talk to patients suffering from heart related conditions – they share experiences and offer encouragement and coping strategies that the patients might find useful. At Northern Lincolnshire and Goole Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, volunteers help patients and volunteers navigate their way around acute trusts, which can feel like a maze, to ensure that they reach their appointments on time or maximise their visiting hours with loved ones. These are just a few examples of the direct impact volunteers are having.

Clearly, volunteering offers a huge opportunity to provide a more personalised and patient-centred service – volunteers are dedicating their time to provide compassionate and personalised care to patients, which in turn positively impacts on their experience. However, it is clear that this is an area where research and practice needs to develop further – not only to ensure that the time volunteers are investing is well spent, but also to celebrate their contribution.

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