Around three million people volunteer in health and care in England – about 350 of them at Chelsea and Westminster.
The first thing that struck me was that volunteers aren’t necessarily only helping to improve people’s experience of care – I met volunteers who were directly improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of services. One worked in stock control in the pharmacy, and was looking at ways to encourage dispensing pharmacists to make use of leftover drugs from half-used packs rather than ordering fresh boxes. Others worked in outpatient clinics helping to control queues by recording and reporting waiting times. And others were using their professional skills to assist with clerical work and the transfer of records and information between teams.
But – of course – I also met many volunteers whose main role is helping to care for patients and families. People of different ages, with different backgrounds, who come to the hospital once or twice a week to sit with patients for an extended chat, give help at mealtimes, cups of tea, a hand to hold, or a friendly smile. I met the volunteer who gets drinks for patients waiting for transport to return home. I met someone keeping company a man recovering from a stroke who had an infection and needed to remain isolated. I met someone who supports families waiting for paediatric outpatients appointments, reassuring parents of disabled children that they will soon be seen. And I met people who help to make sense of the inevitably bewildering hospital building and steer people arriving at the front door to where they need to go.
They all had different reasons for being there. Some wanted to give something back to their local community in their retirement. Others wanted a professional leg-up and a boost to their CV. And many told me of their passionate commitment to simply feeling useful and supportive to people in their times of need.
I am so grateful to the team at Chelsea and Westminster for letting me spend time with them. There is something profoundly moving and uplifting about witnessing the kindness of strangers, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better way to spend NHS Change Day.
The importance of compassion, caring, and concern for the dignity and humanity of the people who use health services is on the national policy agenda, more now than I have ever seen it before. And the role of volunteers needs to be a central part of that agenda. My day at Chelsea and Westminster helped to confirm for me what we at the Fund have said before; that a strategic approach to volunteering has real potential benefits for organisations wanting to improve quality. Matching volunteers to the right roles and supporting staff to understand and make the most of the help that volunteers can offer are part of this.
The urge to be kind is such a fundamental part of human nature. Our genes are selfish, and it’s true we are capable of acts of cruelty too. But being kind is a profound natural act that meets our need to feel connected to others. Yet there is so much about our acute health care system that works against creating an environment where we can give due attention to the little things that contribute so significantly to how people experience their care.
I made a pledge to do something specific for NHS Change Day itself. But that has made me want to make another pledge, a more permanent one. I pledge to help make sure that my work at The King’s Fund makes a constructive contribution, however small and however necessarily distant and abstract, to helping people involved in providing care, be they volunteers or staff, feel more able to act on that essential human need to be kind.