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Volunteers reduce pressure on frontline NHS staff, report finds

90% of staff believe that volunteering adds a lot of value for patients

Ingrid Torjesen

Tuesday, 04 December 2018

Volunteers in hospitals play a vital role in improving the experience of patients and relieving pressure on frontline staff, a report* from The King’s Fund has found.

The report, commissioned by Royal Voluntary Service and Helpforce, is based on a survey of nearly 300 hospital staff in England including nurses, doctors and support staff – the first time that NHS frontline staff have been surveyed for their views about volunteers.

It found that a high proportion of staff interact with volunteers regularly (half had done so in the last week) and very strong support for volunteering among frontline staff.

Hospital volunteers provide practical help such as picking up medicines and doing tea rounds, as well as companionship, comfort and support to patients. The aims is to free up time for frontline staff to prioritise clinical care, improving staff experience as well as the patient’s experience of care.

Around 90% of staff responding to the survey said they believe that volunteering adds a lot of value for patients and 74% said volunteers also add value for staff. A third of respondents said volunteers provide essential reassurance and company to patients and almost a third felt volunteers free up their time to focus on clinical care.

The report follows the announcement of a partnership between Royal Voluntary Service and Helpforce to explore how to scale up the number of volunteers in the NHS to ease pressure points. It identifies a number of challenges hospital staff face when working with volunteers, the biggest of which is a lack of clarity regarding the boundaries between the roles of staff and volunteers. Some staff raised concerns about the potential to rely on volunteers too much in services that are increasingly under pressure and staff also felt volunteers would have more impact if staff were provided with better training and better knowledge of the role of volunteers.

Catherine Johnstone, chief executive of Royal Voluntary Service said: “The report highlights both opportunities and challenges, which we need to embrace and tackle if we want to successfully scale up voluntary service in hospitals. Supporting trusts to develop effective volunteering strategies, providing greater clarity around the role volunteers can and should play, providing the right training to help volunteers perform those roles and developing bespoke service offerings to get more volunteers on to wards, are all areas where we can add significant value.”

The report makes a number of recommendations to NHS trust leaders to help them maximise the impact of volunteers in their hospitals, particularly those at board level with a strategic responsibility for decisions about volunteering. It calls for all NHS acute hospital trusts to have an adequately resourced volunteering strategy and to ensure frontline staff are trained and empowered to develop supportive working relationships with volunteers.

Richard Murray, director of policy at The King’s Fund said: “Despite the growing focus being placed on the value of volunteering in NHS hospitals, we still have much to learn about how frontline staff feel about volunteers. Understanding this is critical if the welcome step-change in health policy and support for volunteering is to translate to practical success on the ground. We found that frontline staff clearly appreciate the human kindness volunteers bring into busy hospital life, provided they are not being used as a substitute for paid staff. We encourage NHS bosses to sit up and take note of the critical role their staff say volunteers play in enhancing patient experience.”

*The role of volunteers in the NHS: views from the front line. A report prepared by The King's Fund, 04 December 2018.

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