The future of volunteering in health care

Volunteers add significant value to the workforce of paid professionals in health and social care. But are we doing enough to harness their potential? We talk to Lisa Weaks, Third Sector Programme Manager at The King’s Fund, about a research project that looks at this issue.

The success of the games makers at the 2012 London Olympics showed just how effective an army of volunteers can be, and it’s a topic high on the political agenda. In its White Paper on giving (Cabinet Office 2011) the government committed to investing £40 million over two years in volunteering and social action, and made further pledges in 2012.

An uncertain future?

Against the backdrop of this broader political commitment, Lisa Weaks argues that now is a pertinent time to look at volunteering in health care. ‘With the ongoing health reforms, plus the challenge to improve quality and efficiency, there is a huge amount of flux in the system. We need to ask the question “how could this affect volunteering?” and consider how volunteering can be adequately supported in the future.’

In England, there are an estimated three million volunteers involved in health and social care, in both the voluntary sector and public services. ‘This is a huge number of people, particularly when viewed in the context of the paid workforce,’ says Lisa. ‘We need to nurture this, and think carefully about how we use this massive resource.’

Number of volunteers graphic

Graph showing number of volunteers in the health and social care system

Value beyond numbers

Lisa explains that we need to look beyond these numbers and think about the value offered by volunteers. ‘The time people give is extremely important but it’s the value of their actions which is of real interest, in terms of what it provides to the health and social care system. It’s about people in the community helping other people in that community; that might be through offering care and support, or helping people to navigate the system and access services and so reducing health inequalities.’

The research project

The Department of Health commissioned The King’s Fund to examine the future of volunteering in health, particularly in the context of the current reform programme. Lisa worked alongside three colleagues on the project: David Buck, Senior Fellow at the Fund who leads our work on public health and inequalities; Chris Naylor, Fellow; and Claire Mundle, Policy Officer. The research was supported by an external advisory group: ‘This included people from a range of sectors,’ explains Lisa. ‘It meant we could get a broad range of views and insights to support the work, and we tested each stage of the research with this group.’

The research team carried out a summary literature review, looking at the size and scope of volunteering in the health and social care sectors, the motivations of people who volunteer, and the value of volunteering to volunteers, patients, service users and the sector as a whole. The findings from this review were used in the qualitative research phase, which included interviews and focus groups with volunteers, patients, service users, and commissioners. ‘This was an opportunity to ask lots of questions about volunteering,’ explains Lisa. ‘We explored the value of volunteering, the challenges and opportunities of the new system, and what works and what doesn’t work; the comments were illuminating and insightful and many are included in our final report.’

Emerging findings were then used to develop two scenarios: a best case and worst case for the future. These scenarios were tested and refined at an expert workshop with invited participants from a range of sectors.

Findings and recommendations

Ahead of the report’s publication in mid-March, Lisa shares an insight into what the research found: ‘An important finding is the value provided by the work of volunteers – it can improve people’s experience of care, build strong relationships between services and communities, support integrated care and improve public health and reduce health inequalities.’

Lisa outlines the best case and worst case scenarios: ‘In the best case, volunteering could be an important part of a new, closer relationship between health services and the communities they serve. In the worst case, service providers and commissioners face a loss of goodwill and growing tensions around the role of volunteers in service delivery, particularly if growth in volunteering is perceived as cost-cutting.’

The report contains recommendations targeted at different layers of the health care system, including:

  • national system leaders (for example, the Department of Health and NHS Commissioning Board)
  • commissioners and local system leaders (for example, health and wellbeing boards)
  • providers (including those in the NHS, voluntary and private sectors).

‘We would like our findings and recommendations to be discussed and acted on by these groups,’ explains Lisa. ‘This needs to happen to ensure that the huge potential and value from volunteering is realised.’ She adds: ‘We’re at a tipping point. In the current context, it is particularly important to think strategically about the role of volunteering; the health and social care system will find it increasingly difficult to meet its objectives without doing that.’