Community health
Establishing the role of volunteering in health and care

By - Integrated Care Journal

Rt Hon Stephen Dorrell, Executive Chair of Public Policy Projects and former Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate, hosted a panel of expert speakers at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference to discuss the role of volunteers in the health and care workforce.

Over the course of 2020, more than 750,000 people signed up to the NHS Volunteer Responder programme offering their support for those worst impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. This was the largest mobilisation of volunteers since the Second World War. However, this rapid uptake in volunteer activity is at odds with existing frameworks for volunteering in health and care.

The first panellist to address party members was Jeremy Hughes CBE, former chief executive at the Alzheimer’s Society and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, who opened his contribution with a call for volunteering to be “moved out of the silos” and become more closely integrated into the delivery of care. However, he framed this criticism of the division of available resources with a nod to the solutions on offer, including the more effective use of technology to facilitate closer systemic integration.

Acknowledging a certain degree of progress that has been made so far, Jeremy emphasised that, “we now see volunteering as more central to the NHS than we did before. ” This is certainly true of the flagship NHS policies with volunteering being included in the NHS People Plan while it was previously omitted from the Five Year Forward View. However, as some of the virtual attendees were keen to mention, this does not necessarily reflect a change in mindset and practice on the ground.

In healthcare, volunteering spans acute services, primary care, community services and social care. In many parts of the social care sector, volunteers have become “integral,” working alongside paid professionals. However, this is not the case closer to the NHS and in primary care.

In truth, this is not entirely a fault of the healthcare service. As the second panellist to speak, Rt Hon Sir Norman Lamb, Chair of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and Former Minister of State for Care and Support at the Department of Health, said: “volunteers can’t take the place of skilled professionals in health and social care. ” Despite this reflection, Sir Norman continued to outline how volunteers can play a “vital role” in the system, calling for closer collaboration and more community cohesion.

Considering the social aspect to healthcare, Sir Norman praised the role that volunteers can play in boosting the wellbeing for those experiencing loneliness and poor mental and physical health as a result. With families and friends living at increased physical distances from one another, a trend observed pre-coronavirus and exaggerated by lockdown restrictions, there is a need for the wider community to step-in. Despite this issue being well recognised, “this should not be the role of the state,” clarified Sir Norman, placing the emphasis instead on communities to become the solution.

Looking specifically at the implications of Covid-19 on mental health, Sir Norman urged that we “think about the psychological fallout of this crisis,” linking the impact of the pandemic with the absence of close support due to more disconnected communities. Going further, he added: “The role of volunteering in how we respond to mental distress in our communities becomes absolutely critical in the context of the pandemic. ” Stressing the importance of engaging earlier to stop health deterioration and improve long-term outcomes, Sir Norman advocated that: “part of our response should be trying to build more resilience in our communities. ” With an “army of people” waiting to help, is a call to action just what volunteers are waiting for?

Councillor Doreen Huddart, Community Wellbeing Board member at the Local Government Association, raised her concerns that charities and the third sector, who are receiving fewer donations due to Covid-19, will not be able to offer the support they could pre-pandemic. According to Doreen, a reduction of funding may lead to changes that will have implications for volunteering and the benefits it is able to offer to communities and the healthcare system itself. In light of this, and to protect the resource that remains available, we must consider exactly what skills volunteers need to offer the most valuable support to those who need it, she added. However, Doreen warned that, without “good local knowledge,” it will remain a challenge to “best utilise” and “integrate” voluntary care.

The final panellist to be introduced was Catherine Johnstone CBE, chief executive of the Royal Voluntary Service, who expressed her view that “the voluntary community sector should be complementary to the state. ” Agreeing with Norman, she echoed calls for the healthcare sector to be more collaborative and work out how to “better mobilise volunteers” to provide support for those who most need it on the frontline. This is a “great opportunity” to better use volunteering as a resource, she emphasised, remarking on the exceptional scale of the challenge ahead. However, there are still barriers to be overcome.

Perhaps the most obvious obstacle to recruiting and mobilising volunteers is the requirement for a unique set of checks before an individual can offer their time. While necessary, this process is time-consuming and burdensome for volunteers looking to offer their support if they have to do it for every role. Thinking about the longer-term, Catherine called for better thinking about how to check and approve volunteers, including perhaps a ‘volunteer passport. ’ “We do need to tackle this structural issue,” she said, to better link volunteers to opportunities and remove barriers to them joining.

The key takeaways were clear. The state must put in place a framework for greater collaboration between the voluntary sector and employed health and care professionals. Barriers must be removed and volunteering encouraged and recognised for its value. National frameworks must then be met with local initiatives to get the right support to the right people at the right time. The benefits are, after all, not just limited to groups volunteers seek to support, but are felt by the volunteers themselves.


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