Volunteers from 15 charities, including Age UK and British Red Cross, could be deployed to accident and emergency departments across the country to help nurses and doctors deal with growing pressures on the system this winter.
Charity chiefs met with government policy advisors this week to discuss their plans to lead an immediate, national response to help reduce unnecessary A&E attendances and speed up hospital discharges.
The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations wants to see volunteers assisting with non-clinical duties, such as supporting NHS staff to assess the best setting for people’s care and providing transport to take home discharged patients.
“There is definitely a problem of people occupying beds who actually aren’t ill and could be discharged…That’s where volunteers can really help”
It is putting together a detailed plan following a meeting with the cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood and Department of Health permanent secretary Una O’Brien.
Nursing Times has been told that a decision is expected by the government next week on whether to implement the proposals.
ACEVO said it wanted a major expansion of existing services already carried out by charities in partnership with trusts.
The body said it was not proposing that volunteers replace clinical staff. Volunteer duties would include assisting clincians – in emergency departments or during ambulance call-outs – by providing additional information about patients who the volunteer may already be familiar with.
“When a paramedic arrives, an elderly person may be vulnerable, frantic and doesn’t know what is going on and a paramedic, for safety, will take them to A&E,” said Asheem Singh, a director of policy at ACEVO.
“If the volunteer is around they can help explain the medication that patient normally receives and their normal care,” said Mr Singh.
“This often reduces A&E admission because the paramedic has a better assessment of what the situation looks like,” he told Nursing Times.
“But the big win here is discharge. There is definitely a problem of people occupying beds who actually aren’t ill and could be discharged but the hospital is not satisfied they would be properly cared for, or they don’t have the means to get them out. That’s where volunteers can really help,” he added.
Mr Singh also pointed to an existing programme – being run by the Royal Voluntary Service at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust – tackling readmission, which would be expanded if the government accepts ACEVO’s plans.
He said the programme had meant readmissions under the service had reduced from 20% to around 3.5%.
“When a patient is discharged they are identified by the charity as being at risk [of readmission]. The volunteers work under direction of a consultant or nurse to ensure that any readmission that takes places is only for sound medical reasons and not for non-medical reasons such as resulting from panic or lack of care at home,” said Mr Singh.
NHS England data also showed that this winter, A&E departments missed the four-hour waiting target for 95% of patients from arrival to admission, transfer or discharge, with 92.6% of patients seen within the target timeframe.