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When we think of volunteers in the NHS we often think of the incredible people who give their time and energy to running tea trolleys in a hospital. Invaluable though this is, it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the contribution that volunteers make across the whole of the health system in supporting integrated care and augmenting care within change programmes.
There are some incredible examples where volunteers help to prevent an escalation in mental health issues or provide a joined-up approach to falls prevention across organisations amongst many others. These volunteering initiatives are frequently led by voluntary sector organisations, often working in partnership with the NHS.
We therefore need to consider how we build on these partnerships and support new ones to flourish across the whole health and care system.
Of course, volunteers should never replace the role of paid staff. However, they can provide support with many things that staff cannot do, often stepping in to help family and friends or supporting those who are isolated. The volunteers I meet daily provide a unique role, elevating patient care to new levels and making sure the whole person and their family is cared for.
We recently met with the Bradford Doulas, a remarkable group who support vulnerable women through pregnancy, childbirth and the first few weeks after the birth. This integrated approach, involving both voluntary and statutory sectors, sees volunteers enabling women who need it to have more support than the statutory sector can offer alone and is contributing to increasing and extending breast feeding, reducing smoking in pregnancy, reducing pressure on clinical staff, providing personalised care for the mum, signposting and linking into non-NHS services (reducing pressure on services) and supporting the overarching ambition to reduce infant mortality.
But the voluntary sector’s strength involves far more than ‘just’ providing volunteers; it lies in their ability to add value to any service or to reach communities that might otherwise be missed, as well as the unique insights they have into these communities and their ability to flex to meet the needs of their populations in ways that the NHS cannot. In any change programme, adding insight from the voluntary sector or enhancing the programme design by including volunteering approaches, has the potential to ‘add the sparkle’: increasing the potential to improve health outcomes and reducing health inequalities.
It is for this reason that we have launched a new programme to integrate volunteering approaches across Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships (STPs) and Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) and enable more partnership working with the voluntary sector. This programme will include new funding to enable STP/ICSs to consider how to strengthen partnerships with the voluntary sector and scale up volunteering in a way that enhances and adds a new dimension to meeting/addressing their existing priorities. It will provide opportunities to explore how volunteering can be integrated at a system level to truly add value and for the voluntary sector to be involved at system, place or neighbourhood level.
Through this programme, systems will be looking to the voluntary sector locally to identify where their strengths are complementary to existing or planned change programmes and consider what opportunities there may be to build mutually beneficial partnerships. Over the next few months we will be running a series of webinars where you can find out more about this programme; in the meantime, you can read further information on our website.