NHS volunteers can ease pressure of extreme weather

The Director of Commissioned Services at Royal Voluntary Service looks at the value of high impact volunteering roles and the experience and expertise volunteers can bring. These roles are prioritised as part of the Helpforce programme of work supported by NHS England and mentioned in the NHS Long Term Plan:

Last summer was one of the warmest on record for the UK – and 2019 is expected to see similar temperatures.

For the more vulnerable, warmer weather can be a challenge. Like extreme cold weather, heat can cause an increase in patient admissions and studies show there is a higher chance of patients further declining, thereby prolonging their stay. Indeed, being admitted to hospital is the single biggest predictive risk of functional decline in older people and we need to do everything we can to prevent this.

It is a huge problem in terms of long-term health of patients and the strain it can place on NHS staff, but is not without a solution.

Some of the issues caused by heat can be prevented simply with the support of volunteers. If vulnerable patients are adequately hydrated, they are at reduced risk of contracting common infections like UTIs and can also avoid dizziness and migraines. The availability of water is therefore vital to patients’ health, but not something that ordinarily falls within NHS staff remit, meaning volunteers can add significant value through regular rounds offering drinks to patients.

Prevention was prioritised in the NHS Long Term Plan this January, and volunteers can deliver these minor tasks, that have a significant ongoing effect in terms of helping prevention, particularly at points of pressure.

In the heat, when patients are more likely to remain immobile, gentle exercise, under the guidance of a trained volunteer, can be the difference between a speedy recovery and additional illnesses and readmission. As well as more traditional roles, volunteers helping with movement and balance, also have a part to play in ensuring quick recoveries and reduced readmission.

There is a growing body of research evidence on the benefits of strength and balance exercises during recovery; inactivity in hospital is associated with a 10 per cent to 65 per cent decline in ability to do everyday activities post discharge. Luckily, there are proven interventions that reduce frailty and improve physical function: in a study of very frail older adults, 61 per cent showed an improvement in physical function following 10 to 14 weeks of 30 to 45 mins resistance-based exercise.

Volunteers can assist physio-therapists, complementing and adding to their work programmes, and also help with physio support for those who may not otherwise receive it, despite declining physical function, thereby supporting patients to retain crucial function and preventing this decline.

Volunteers can support better recovery of physical function through activities as simple as walking patients up and down corridors, which can be especially challenging in warmer temperatures. They can also help with integration once patients are home, by helping with everyday activities, such as returning to using their local bus route and supporting them in overcoming the physical challenges they present.

Leicestershire Home from Hospital Services saw a readmission rate of 8.6 per cent against the University Hospitals Leicester average of 17 per cent following use of the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS) Home from Hospital service.

The NHS Heatwave Plan 2018 recognises the challenges of extreme hot weather and mentions the role that voluntary organisations can play in supporting the health of patients. Hospitals where RVS already has a presence have the means to reinforce their staff and improve patient experience by offering additional support through extra volunteers in challenging months. Last January, at the peak of winter pressures, volunteers stepped forward to offer extra time at one in ten hospitals across Britain. Over 380 extra shifts took place, with volunteers dedicating almost 900 hours, helping to keep patients and staff hydrated in periods of busy work and longer waits.

In Summer, our ‘Supporting You at Home’ service becomes even more important for prevention. The service aims to settle older people back into their community and can provide a helping hand after illness, injury or bereavement – or simply a confidence boost. Support could include; assisted shopping (with nutrition and hydration information), as well as safe and well checks to highlight problems.

This support is time-limited, so focuses on helping to start activities that the individual can continue independently. We also contact them as a follow-up, to see if any further support is needed. These preventative interventions can make a huge difference to quality of life and have a significant impact on uptake of NHS services.

Volunteer support benefits the NHS and its staff all year round. Through work in communities and hospitals, volunteers help to reduce the length of hospital stays, helping to prevent extended illness and re-admissions.

Offering volunteer services can add value across the NHS and ahead of another warm Summer and should be a priority consideration for hospitals.

Sam Ward

Sam Ward is the Director of Commissioned Services for Royal Voluntary Service, one of the country’s largest volunteering organisations.

She provides the strategic direction for service provision supporting people to age well and for the charity’s work within the NHS, supporting those in critical life events.

Sam is also responsible for our Services Welfare work, a legacy service which provides much needed help to young personnel in Britain’s Armed Forces.
Since joining the charity in 2000, Sam has had a number of roles at the charity from managing projects for community development and change to overseeing portfolios within the charity’s hospital retail estate.

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