Volunteers’ Week: Volunteering post-pandemic; lessons learned

Our volunteer service is exceptionally busy with hardly a minute to think and we’re always on the go. We like to think we’re innovative and have volunteers active in every corner of our hospitals, meeting and greeting, collecting patient feedback, engaging with older people and patients with dementia, providing holistic end of life care, helping in ED and supporting those being discharged, all of which we’re very proud of.

However, the pandemic gave us an opportunity to rethink what we deliver and consider how we can rebuild volunteering around the patient to make the biggest difference to their experience in hospital and after they leave us.

The need for change has been building for a while. Our ‘baby boomer’ volunteers have been prepared to commit large chunks of their time every week, much like the working lives they left when they retired. Now we are recruiting younger people with a different approach – and we need to adjust our offer to and ask of volunteers accordingly.

In ‘normal’ times we had over 600 volunteers but the pandemic brought much of this volunteering activity to an abrupt halt. Our older volunteers were at higher risk from COVID-19 and the hospital was minimising the number of people on site to limit infections.

We maintained a core of around 35 volunteers, predominantly made up of drivers helping to deliver medication to the community and chemotherapy to our relocated cancer services at the Spire Hospital, Norwich.

Even in the first pandemic wave, we started to innovate. Recently retired nurses replaced our usual volunteer force with support at mealtimes and with end of life care. The Trust also introduced local fire fighters to help clinical staff with mask fitting while an influx of working age volunteers gave us a new perspective. In the second wave, our vaccination centre delivered over 60,000 jabs with the help of a range of people: local authority staff, retired NHS staff and others. It showed us what we could do in a crisis.

By the time we started to bring volunteers back on site everything had changed and we had to retrain everyone about the rules for infection control, mask wearing and one-way systems.  Sadly, a number of our volunteers decided to call it a day and enjoy their much-deserved retirement.

For those who stayed, we have created new digital virtual roles which volunteers can carry out in the safety of their own homes. Roles such as collecting patient experience data or making welfare calls to newly discharged patients will provide valuable feedback and safety information.

Looking at the positives, the pandemic has put volunteering in healthcare on the radar for the first time for many people and there is enhanced recognition from our staff of the value volunteers have added to the workplace. This is a great opportunity for us to grow and we need to grab it with both hands.

We are now planning a more patient centred, holistic model of service aimed at making patients’ stay more comfortable and helping them to think ahead of their needs post discharge. During their stay, volunteers will offer a range of services from bedside companionship, reading aloud, iPad activities, hand massage, a visit from a PAT (pets as therapy) dog or support from our chaplaincy volunteers. We will then follow the patient’s journey home, expanding our driver and settle in service to provide enhanced volunteer discharge support. Volunteers can drive a patient home, unpack bags, make a cup of tea, do some shopping and follow up with welfare calls which can identify any community signposting needs.

It’s been a hard year but we’re ready to meet the next challenge with a new and improved Volunteer Service – watch this space.

Sally Dyson

Sally Dyson is Voluntary Services Manager at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and East Anglian Hub Chair for the National Association of Voluntary Services Managers.