Case Study: Empowering volunteers to support patients and families when they need it most

An overhaul of volunteer training at the Macmillan Unit at Christchurch Hospital has transformed the working environment there and had a significant positive impact on staff, patients and their families. As a palliative care unit, a key focus of the training is to provide volunteers with the confidence to talk about challenging issues for patients approaching the end of their life.

Macmillan Caring Locally
Date 2017
Region South West
Size 0-49 employees
Sector Charity

initial number of volunteers in 2011

£ increase in donations in 2 years

number of volunteers in 2017

£ savings to the NHS budget

Seeking additional support

Six years ago, the Macmillan Unit at Christchurch Hospital in Dorset was faced with the twin problem of staff shortages and an upsurge in terminally ill patients needing help and support. With no extra funding for new staff, they came up with a solution to recruit and train volunteers.

Fast forward to 2017 and the unit has been transformed. That’s thanks to a very successful project with hundreds of volunteers trained in the skills needed to support palliative care patients benefiting staff, patients and their families.

For many families, the Macmillan Unit offers vital support at a time of stress, worry and heartache. The staff care for patients with multiple conditions who are in need of specialist end-of-life care. Patients may be battling cancer while also suffering from diabetes, Parkinson’s, or dementia. While the core services are funded by the NHS, a significant proportion comes from the local community and from Macmillan Caring Locally.

In 2011, the Macmillan Unit had just 20 active volunteers, performing traditional roles like tea and coffee making. Today, numbers are eight times that, with 160 volunteers of all ages and backgrounds taking on key roles that ease the workload of frontline staff and ensure the unit can best support the needs of its patients.

The network of specialist volunteers commit anything from three hours per week to several hours every day and take on any number of tasks from driving lifesaving equipment to patients’ homes to assisting with administrative tasks or simply providing a listening ear for the families of those who are critically ill.

A new approach to training

This change is thanks to the introduction of an innovative peer-to-peer upskilling programme – a simple intervention that has paid dividends for the unit and for the NHS more widely. As research from the King’s Fund has found, an investment of £8 in volunteers can mean savings of £151,000 to the NHS budget.

Volunteer Coordinator Anita Rigler, who was charged with overhauling the training the Macmillan Unit provided, said their first step was to go into ‘listening mode’. “We spent a few weeks asking staff what help they needed, and how we could make jobs easier,” she explained. “They all needed drivers, or admin help, or an extra pair of hands. It turned out that everyone needed the same help, but no one had ever thought to ask.”

Anita and her team mapped the feedback, and began to develop role descriptions, outlining the key skills and qualities needed, such as being a good listener, or having physical strength. Rigler said they wanted to recruit on ‘an attitudes and values basis’, and achieved this by asking experienced volunteers to conduct the interviews.

Courses are offered in everything from infection control and safeguarding, to listening and communication skills or occupational therapy. Experienced volunteers guide new arrivals on key skills while staff lead on organisational training.

As a palliative care unit, a key focus of the training is on the difficult questions that could arise. Volunteers have been empowered to talk about challenging issues with confidence and help provide valuable support to patients at a time when they and their families need it most.

‘Hospices and hospitals should be building volunteering into their long term strategy, I want to educate others on the benefit of having highly-trained volunteers, and how easy it is to do.’

Anita Rigler – Volunteer Coordinator

A small step with impressive consequences

The training scheme has transformed the volunteer network with a huge impact on the unit in terms the level of support it can now deliver to patients and with cost-savings too.   The volunteers are seen as integral to the unit. “One small step opened up a huge support network for staff,” said Rigler. “Previously, we would have gone to the expense of ordering a taxi when we desperately needed something, but now there is a volunteer able to jump up and deliver a much-needed piece of equipment.”

With volunteers plugging the gaps, staff have more space to assess patients and provide the personalised care that is needed when someone is critically ill. “The volunteer office is now seen as a problem-solving hub,” said Rigler. “There is always someone with the skill needed; it’s just a case of matching supply and demand.” Meanwhile, the training has boosted the confidence of the volunteers, many of whom have lost a loved one to cancer or another life-long condition and are keen to give something back to a place that means a great deal to them. Others are teenagers planning a career in medicine and seeking to develop vital employability skills while giving their own time.

This transformation continues to go from strength to strength, with volunteers now running peer-led training in end-of-life care, gardening, charity shop work, and transportation while matching skills to different roles. The unit’s income is now on the rise year on year and Rigler credits the volunteer network for contributing to this, but more than that, the regular letters of thanks received from staff, patients, visitors and staff demonstrate that its impact reaches much further.

Looking to the future

Anita is now hoping to extend the network into the local community by offering free training places to other local charities. She is developing a training package that can be shared and implemented by any hospice that would benefit from up-skilled volunteers. “Hospices and hospitals should be building volunteering into their long term strategy,” she said. “I want to educate others on the benefit of having highly-trained volunteers, and how easy it is to do.”

Speaking about the Macmillan Unit achieving a Princess Royal Training Award this year, Chris Jones, Chief Executive of the City & Guilds Group, said it was clearly deserved. “This is an inspiring example of how an organisation can create real change and lasting impact by successfully linking skills development to the particular challenges it faces,” he said. “It is fantastic to see how training has transformed the entire working environment for the hospice with more patients and their families now receiving the help and support they need at such a difficult time.  I hope more organisations follow suit by making training – of staff and volunteers – a key consideration in their future plans.”

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