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Practice comment

'Volunteers are a valuable asset in healthcare, but can be underused and undervalued'

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Sharon Bird and Julie Hughes remind us of the opportunities and benefits of using volunteers, and that paid staff should not feel threatened by their involvement

Volunteers play a valuable role in supporting trained staff to deliver quality patient care and improve patients’ experiences. The Chief Nursing Officer for England recently thanked volunteers for the valuable contribution they make to the NHS and called upon health and social care leaders to ensure volunteers are used to their full potential.

Volunteers play a valuable role in supporting trained staff to deliver quality patient care and improve patient experiences, particularly at a time when the NHS is under resourced. However, despite a wealth of willing volunteers, many of whom have valuable life skills and experience, there is often a lack of clarity and focus about what their role involves and their benefits to patient care.They may feel anxious about taking on the role of paid staff and in some cases are unsure how they will be supported in their role.

We have both enjoyed positive personal experiences of working with volunteers. Examples include setting up a volunteer companionship service where volunteers supported dying patients and their families and involving volunteers who were mental health service users in an infection prevention and control training and audit programme.

In our experience volunteers have a valuable role in supporting staff, patients and families to enhance quality of care. However, some healthcare staff may feel threatened by volunteers, feeling ‘possessive’ about their patients, or believe that management could use volunteers to replace certain aspects of their role. Staff may be unclear about the specific role of volunteers, their expertise and capability and also where they themselves stand in terms of their own accountability and responsibility as registered nurses.

Equally volunteers can feel uncomfortable or unwelcome and may have unrealistic expectations of what they are allowed to do, feeling their experience/skills are underutilised or not appreciated. This can be demotivating and discourage engagement with the role. Supervision and management of the volunteers is therefore crucial so everyone is clear about what their role involves.

Good management, leadership and communication are vital if volunteers are to be involved effectively in patient care. Volunteers receive basic training and have the same terms and conditions as staff, the only difference is that they are unpaid. Training is the foundation for strong and dedicated volunteers and it should be a specifically structured program. Role descriptions, supervision and mentoring is important, with counselling available in sensitive roles.

The King’s Fund suggests that the Health and Social Care Act 2012 provides opportunities to improve the contribution of volunteering although it acknowledges the challenges involved. This is an opportunity not to be missed, as volunteers are an untapped resource with the potential not only to enhance quality patient care but also to complement and support staff. This can only be achieved with good leadership and effective communication skills in collaboration with a genuine desire to make it work.

Sharon Bird is a patient/carer representative, end-of-life care group at Aintree University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; Julie Hughes is an independent nurse consultant, infection control

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