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The help of young people is crucial to the NHS

The Director for Experience, Participation and Equalities at NHS England has been back on the hospital wards seeing what difference young volunteers can make:

I’ve been back at Chelsea and Westminster hospital this week putting in a few shifts as a Bleep Volunteer.

In this role, you move around the hospital answering requests for help, for example playing a board game with a patient who is lonely, chatting and reassuring someone with dementia or helping someone get some fresh air in the nearby park, things that a family member would do if they could.

You also collect medicines from pharmacy and take them up to the wards. Waiting for medicines is the main reason patients are delayed leaving hospital, according to the Inpatient Survey, but it’s not easy for staff to leave the ward. By speeding this process up, volunteers can help patients get home sooner and relieve one of the pressures on staff.

A few things have changed since I volunteered last summer. Most visibly, there are lots of young people volunteering in the hospital over the holidays. It’s not uncommon to find young people pursuing medical careers shadowing clinicians but it can be harder for other young people to find volunteering opportunities within the NHS. It wasn’t an option for my daughters when they did their Duke of Edinburgh certificate, for example.

Welcoming younger volunteers is good for the NHS and it’s good for young people too, who gain skills, confidence and experience as well as exposure to the diverse careers open to them within the NHS.

That’s why the NHS pledged to support the #IWill campaign, which promotes social action by young people.

Katie Thomson, who leads youth volunteering at Chelsea and Westminster, tells me that young people often don’t come forward because they don’t know what contribution they can make.

#IWill has helped the Trust target local comprehensive schools and 46 pupils from 28 different schools and colleges have signed up to their summer programme. They’re a visible and friendly presence as soon as you enter the hospital, helping people relax and find their way around. Getting a good welcome is likely to improve later aspects of the patient and carer experience.

For some young people, it will be a positive way to spend time over the holidays and a line on their CV. For others, it will be the start of a lifelong relationship with the NHS, either as a volunteer or as a future colleague.

As digital natives, the young people I met were using a new app provided by the Trust to help them make the most of their time. They used it to sign in when they arrive, register where they are volunteering and how many patients they help each day.

Sitting with someone dying on their own or living with dementia is of course beyond measurement. But the time volunteers give is valuable and we cannot afford to take it for granted. Having real time data on which volunteers are here and what they are doing helps us do our best for patients and carers.

Trusts can ask a volunteer to move to a different ward or service, for example, to help out where things are especially busy. It’s also useful to know, when recruiting volunteers, what times of day are best covered already and where the gaps in volunteer services or skills might be.

Nationally, data from sources like this app will help us learn how many volunteers we have in the NHS. The estimate of 78,000 from acute trusts is now quite old and almost certainly an under-estimate. Given that volunteering boosts social mobility and supports active ageing, we are also greatly interested in the diversity of our volunteer force and want to know if we are doing as much as we could to give opportunities to those who would benefit most from volunteering.

NHS England is working with Helpforce to test and spread high-impact volunteering roles, including the Bleep Volunteer model and I hope that it will be adopted by many more Trusts over the coming year.

As someone with an ambivalent attitude to exercise, my volunteering shifts have been an enjoyable way to get active and I have been averaging around 20,000 steps a day. I’ve also really enjoyed meeting other volunteers, from school pupils to Chelsea pensioners and with all kinds of life experience of their own.

It’s obvious that volunteers drawn from local communities help the NHS better understand the needs of their local populations and also help patients feel more at ease when they arrive and use our services.

It’s a truism that volunteering is good for the NHS and it’s good for volunteers but it also explains why we are putting more effort into expanding, recognising people who give their time in so many different but crucial ways.

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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