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Hospital volunteering: getting the facts right

We know volunteers in hospitals already make a huge difference to patients and their families – doing a wide range of jobs from helping with mealtimes, being guides around (often labyrinthine) hospitals, and even delivering hand and arm massages to stroke patients.

As part of our Helping in Hospitals programme, we want to help hospitals to measure the impact of their volunteering services.  We think that this is a vital part of understanding the role that volunteers are playing in hospitals, and is an area that is not always done very well – as my colleague Lindsay Levkoff Lynn has already blogged, focusing too much on volunteer inputs (e.g. the number of volunteers painting roofs to be more reflective, in cities where people spend a small fortune on air conditioning) at the expense of outcomes (the number of roofs actually painted) could lead to some pretty perverse incentives (giving volunteers tiny paintbrushes).

We’re not starting from scratch here: in particular, the King’s Fund’s recent survey of acute trusts created a mine of useful information about the current state of hospital volunteering. Their report concluded that volunteers create £11 for every £1 of investment, going even further than previous studies (for example, Volunteering England’s 2008 report concluding that volunteering in acute trusts has an average ‘return’ of £7 to £10 for every pound invested).

We want to go further. Specifically, we’d like to work with participants in our Helping in Hospitals programme to investigate three areas where they can measure impact:-

  1. Who is volunteering, and what do they get out of it? Many volunteering services already collect information about the size of their volunteer workforce, and we’d like to build on this, to help hospitals get more data about the difference that volunteering might make to the volunteers themselves. For example, what volunteering roles do people find the most satisfying? How far does volunteering help people feel more connected to their local community? Does volunteering help people currently unemployed get back into work? 
  2. What difference do volunteers make to how patients and their friends and families experience hospitals? We think that the presence of a helpful, compassionate volunteer can be a strong factor in turning a ‘satisfactory’ experience into a ‘very good’ one. Data that Kings College Hospital has gathered from a sample of over 6,000 patients supports this. Particularly, patients who had contact with a volunteer consistently gave a higher overall rating of the hospital. And when considering whether they would recommend the hospital to their friends and family, those who had access to a volunteer scored the hospital on average 5.2 points (out of 100) more highly than those who did not.
  3. What difference do volunteers make to patients’ outcomes from their stay in hospital? While volunteers may do a lot to improve patients’ wellbeing, they do not offer clinical services. However, this does not mean that we should ignore specific areas where we think volunteers may make this sort of difference, or look for trends in patient outcomes in areas where volunteers are active. For example, this 2005 study suggested that the presence of volunteers increased life expectancy for terminally ill hospice patients by at least 80 days. And where volunteers help patients to settle in at home following discharge, we think they might make it less likely that those patients will be readmitted to hospital.

We are right at the start of the Helping in Hospitals programme, and we know that we don’t have all the answers. We want to work with hospitals participating in the programme and others working in the field to explore how hospitals can identify the right measures and put the right data collection processes in place – and in so doing, make a strong case for sustained investment in high-impact hospital volunteering across the NHS. If you can help us do this, do let us know by leaving a comment below.

Thanks to Addenbrooke’s Hospital for supplying a photo of their volunteering service in action.