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Tasting life on the front line

NHS England’s Director for Patient Experience finds out just what it’s like at the NHS coalface as a HelpForce volunteer at London’s busy Chelsea and Westminster Hospital:

It’s my fourth day as a volunteer and I get a call.

Occupational Therapists on a ward have asked if I can chat to a 92-year-old woman who won’t get out of bed.

They feel she is depressed and lacking motivation to do the physical movements that are important to regaining her mobility. But the OTs have other patients needing their attention and they are at an impasse.

I speak to the patient for an hour and discover she was a professional artist, whose paintings are still exhibited locally. She has a strong preference for landscapes and we talk of the palm tree rest area on the third floor of the hospital and how that might look on canvas.

She’s not taken to hospital food and gets me to try it. It’s pretty good, I think, but she tells me how her husband had been a greengrocer and she’s missing her meat and fresh vegetables. I mention the hospital restaurant but she seems more interested in nearby cafes and I wonder which are in reach of a wheelchair.

After an hour, I’ve had an enjoyable conversation but I also have hints that might encourage this lady out of bed. I catch up with the staff later and they discuss ideas. They have already tried a few different approaches but they’re grateful for more suggestions. Tomorrow I’ll return to the ward to see if any worked.

This was one of many calls for assistance that I took as a Bleep Volunteer at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, one of a number of new volunteering roles being promoted by HelpForce, a new organisation powering volunteering in hospitals.

There are already around 78,000 volunteers in the NHS, making a huge contribution to patient care. But HelpForce believe there is potential to do more, with new volunteering roles very much a part of clinical teams and management approaches which allow volunteers to contribute skills, learn and adapt as their circumstances change.

Bleep Volunteers carry pagers so they can be contacted by staff from across the hospital, ensuring they can provide efficient assistance where it’s needed most. Over my week as a volunteer, I take medicines from pharmacy to wards, to cut the time patients have to wait before they can go home; help out in A&E, readying booths for new patients; wheel patients and carers around the hospital, listening to their stories; and ring patients to remind them to attend a forthcoming memory clinic.

Often my expectations are confounded. Several of the people I ring about the memory clinic are more organised than me, knowing precise details about their appointment. But I still pick up important details, such as the fact that one invitation letter had not arrived. Because we call a week in advance, there’s time to rectify this, one reason these calls have helped increase attendance to nearly 100 per cent.

The more I am recognised on wards, the more I am asked to do. It’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had and as an NHS manager, it was invaluable seeing first-hand how hospitals function and how this affects patients, carers and staff.

I also met some wonderful people: a young woman is giving her time in part because she wants experience for a medical degree. An older woman sits with people who would otherwise die alone because it is a way of giving back for the care she herself has received. A mum whose children have grown up and left home finds reward in giving a day a week to the memory clinic. As I wheel a carer down from a ward to catch a taxi home, she tells me how she had travelled all over the world as a dancer in WW2.

The staff are caring and inventive but are clearly extremely busy and I reflect what a privilege it is, in an NHS treating a million patients every 36 hours, to spend time with people as individuals and learn a little about their lives, fears and dreams. Having such time is one crucial way volunteers can make such a difference, and support the amazing work of our NHS staff​.

Dr Neil Churchill

Dr Neil Churchill is Director for Experience, Participation and Equalities at NHS England.

His brief includes insight and feedback, patient participation in decision-making, improvement programmes on cancer, learning disability and support for carers and national partnerships with volunteers and the voluntary sector.

Neil joined NHS England in 2013 after a 25 year career in the voluntary sector at organisations including Barnardo’s, Age Concern, Crisis and Asthma UK. He has been a Non-Executive Director for NHS South of England, an appointed member of the National Information Governance Board and a trustee of a number of charities across the UK.

Neil is a member of the Executive Board for the Beryl Institute, a change agent from the School for Change Agents and a member of Q, the quality improvement collaborative from the Health Foundation. He tweets as @neilgchurchill.

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