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The much-anticipated long term plan was released two weeks ago, and it was gratifying to see that it recognised the valuable role volunteers can play in supporting hospitals and the community, says Catherine Johnstone CBE, chief executive of Royal Voluntary Service.
The plan spoke of the impact that well-designed and managed volunteer programmes can have, and the positive results that will be possible if we double the number of volunteers in the NHS.
Volunteering works best when focused on meeting identified needs. It should help fill gaps but avoid treading on toes. It should also push the boundaries of what is possible, showing new ways to meet need. Volunteers are able to offer support; they can also lead, manage, direct and show the way. We know the need for support in the NHS is high.
We know that the NHS is a pressurised environment and care must be taken to ensure volunteering remains complementary. With the right strategies in place, the long term plan paves the way for volunteers to work with staff and patients to help them understand the significant benefits volunteers can offer.
Volunteers support staff by freeing up their time to prioritise clinical care and by acting as an extra pair of hands or eyes.
A recent Kings Fund report we commissioned identified the difference volunteers in acute trusts make; improving the experience of patients and relieving pressure on frontline staff so they can concentrate on clinical care.
The report showed that the overwhelming majority – 70% of frontline staff – agree that volunteering in hospitals adds value for patients, staff and volunteers.
Frontline staff also recognised the broad range of activities carried out by volunteers in NHS hospitals. Volunteers can undertake practical tasks such as picking up medication from the pharmacy, escorting a patient around the hospital, and running tea rounds. They can comfort and support patients and provide companionship for those who don’t have other visitors.
With a base of 20,000 skilled volunteers in the Royal Voluntary Service, we know how important integration is, and the positive impacts of successfully finding gaps and filling them. This is why a broad array of services, used in different and complementary ways, can be so beneficial.
NHS volunteers are able to improve patient experience in hospital, aiding recovery after a stay on a ward, helping older people better look after themselves at home and encouraging them to stay fit, active and build meaningful social connections.
Volunteers involved in well-designed initiatives achieving the above are exactly what the NHS needs. The long term plan outlines how strategically working these roles into our NHS over the next ten years will enable integrated care for patients, and allow staff to deliver at their best, knowing they have the support they need.
We’ve seen the impact of the successful integration of these services for ourselves too. Those patients who used our Leicester ‘home from hospital’ service, restoring confidence and independence in patients, reported a 70% improvement in social contact, and 52% improvement in confidence. This is clear testament to the value of volunteers for the NHS, and gives a sense of what the patient satisfaction in the NHS might look like in future if we are successful in doubling the number of NHS volunteers over the next three years, as suggested in the plan.
While the plan spells out the government’s commitment to doubling the number of volunteers through funding to our partner Helpforce, funding alone is not enough.
The potential for volunteering to positively impact society is enormous but volunteering does not happen by accident: it needs planning, resources and ongoing support. Additionally, recognising and building on the value of local knowledge and experience is vital. If we can manage all of this successfully, and succeed in working with trusts to integrate required volunteering services, we can work together to support our NHS and ageing population.
The long term plan offers the chance for us to consider the future and how we can work together to ensure the NHS continues to go from strength to strength.
It is only with this clarity and effective training, that volunteers can provide maximum value and fulfil the potential they have to support the NHS to have more time to care. The long term plan sets out an achievable role for volunteers in the NHS over the next ten years, but it is up to us to make that happen.
Catherine Johnstone CBE is chief executive of Royal Voluntary Service.