Recognize the Value of Health Care Volunteers

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Article

The health care industry must cultivate volunteer support to maintain a positive impact on vaccination rates.

Volunteers and the work that they do are the backbone for many charities and nonprofits. These workforce team members interact routinely with the public during the volunteer activities. Many times, volunteers provide key interactions on behalf of the organization that can create the positive experience and services that the organizations are proud to provide.

Research reveals that during the COVID-19 pandemic, half of the US population ages 16 years and older volunteered by helping neighbors in their community, and nearly one-quarter formally volunteered their time and talent to help others.1 This unprecedented call to action included community members getting involved, sometimes outside of their comfort zone, in health care efforts such as COVID-19 testing, immunization clinics, medication delivery, wellness checks, and other public health efforts.1,2 This level of support from volunteers is something that the health care industry must continue to leverage if we are to maintain a positive impact specifically on vaccination rates through access and quality of care for our communities.

Red heart sign in volunteer palms, health care, transplantation center, medicine

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Benefits to the Organization

Volunteers can serve as non-clinical support team members to assist health care professionals with non-medical tasks. These tasks can be logistical in nature and range from patient registration and data entry, to greeting patients and overseeing waiting areas. Volunteers often serve as an accessible and friendly onsite contact, whocan distributeinformation as well as entertaining materials to patients and families. This enables health care professionals to focus on administering vaccines and directing attention towards other essential areas, such as vaccine procurement, outreach, and follow-up care.

These non-medical tasks performed by volunteers have a tangible impact on patient outcomes through indirect actions, like overseeing administrative work,which allows more caregiver time with patients. Supporting efforts from volunteers can increase the efficiency of vaccination efforts and ultimately serve a larger number of people in the community.

It is clear that the appropriate use of volunteers in the clinic workforce can help reduce the overall cost of running the clinic. This reduction in cost is an important benefit to the organization as it helps alleviate the larger financial burdens associated with public health initiatives. To allow for a positive impact from volunteers, it is essential to recruit the right volunteers and provide them with the proper training, oversight, and support.

Successful volunteer programs begin with targeted recruitment and identifying individuals with the behaviors and abilities that align with the organization’s mission. In the health care setting, volunteers who understand the importance of maintaining patient confidentiality as well as those who are willing to learn about health care processes should be prioritized. Additionally, candidates who have a sound ethical basis and good communication skills promote a smooth training transition.

Volunteers benefit from being assigned to specific well-defined roles based on their abilities and qualifications paired with considerations for their individual comfort levels. For example, some volunteers may not be comfortable being around needles or seeing blood, which makes identifying their level of comfort an important upfront consideration. Even with some restrictions related to individual comfort, these individuals play a critical role in the success of the clinic. Available roles for volunteers may include registration, schedulers, greeters, screeners, flow coordinators, and post-vaccination observers. Volunteers with a clinical background and required licensure can serve as vaccination administrators or rapid responders. It is helpful for the various volunteer roles to include specific details such as the frequency and timing of responsibilities to ensure clear expectations. Many times, this may require comprehensive training sessions to educate volunteers about vaccine administration protocols, clinic operations, safety procedures, and patient communications.

Volunteer schedules may be slightly more challenging than the schedules of employed team members. It is important to remember that this may not be a volunteer’s primary life commitment and accommodating their schedules to support the needs of other jobs, school, or family responsibilities may require additional flexibilities from the organization. Volunteers may only be available for limited periods of time or specific days, resulting in a need to consider a fluid staffing schedule and not one that is built as fixed shifts or blocks. Noting that employed team members are incentivized to show up for work and on time as this serves as their primary income, volunteers are intrinsically motivated to contribute which may not result in the same level of commitment as an employed team member. If there are volunteers that have a schedule change and are no longer available for a committed shift, it may be necessary to engage employed team members or other staff to fill the void. A chief of staff, team leader, or volunteer coordinator can serve as a primary contact that may keep the volunteers informed regarding clinic schedules and changes in protocols.

Ensuring the sustainability of volunteer programs is important, as long-term engagement can contribute to ongoing efforts in the health care setting, including the ongoing needs for vaccinations. Volunteers in health care settings provide invaluable support and assistance to health care professionals. Experiencing an event in the presence of a caring volunteer can instill a sense of comfort and maybe even reassurance, leading to improved patient satisfaction and overall well-being.

Benefits to the Volunteer

Volunteering in the health care setting offers opportunities for personal growth and development for individuals of all backgrounds. It allows the volunteer to expand their knowledge of the targeted vaccine efforts they are supporting, and more broadly the health care system and public health initiatives overall. The training that volunteers receive also allows for the development of new skills. Volunteers often have the chance to work with health care professionals, allowing them to learn about patient care procedures, treatments, emergency protocols, and general approaches to addressing patient needs.

Volunteering also presents the opportunity to express empathy, show compassion, and develop effective communication skills. These are skills that provide many individuals with a sense of fulfillment in their life.3Beyond this, the communication and interpersonal skills that volunteers develop are translatable to other aspects of their life. Within the organization, volunteers can develop coordination and flexibility in a challenging environment as well as practice problem-solving skills. Volunteers can use abilities from outside of their volunteer experience, such as time or stress management, that allow them to further develop life skills. The ability for individuals to grow personally through participating as a volunteer provides opportunities for growth and self-reflection, as well as self-discovery and self-improvement. As volunteers work as part of the health care team, they connect with other individuals beyond their fellow volunteers. Additionally, connections from interactions can benefit the volunteers’ professional aspirations as they may lead to networking opportunities.

It Is important for the team leader or volunteer coordinator who manages the volunteers to keep these professional incentives in mind as these may be primary drivers for volunteers participating at an organization. It is worth noting that 67% of volunteers surveyed report an increase in their leadership skills, while 80% report both an increase in their communication skills as well as an increase in their influencing abilities.4 Not only are there physical and mental health benefits, but research has shown that volunteering has also increased the number of acquired skills for all the volunteers. A study done by the American Psychological Association found that for every 100 hours of volunteering, individuals reported a 17% increase in acquired skills.5

Volunteers who are high school or college age can gather health care experience in the field, and for some it may be their first exposure to what their future holds in store for them. It can expose a student to discover areas of interest that never would have occurred to them. They then can use that opportunity to create and practice new skills, learn new techniques, and observe others who may be more adept in a specific role or opportunity that opens considerations for them as a future occupation.5

For many high school students, this can be the first time they are part of a multidisciplinary group coming together to help the community. This can be dramatically impactful for a young person as they experience various interactions among a health care team and with different communities with different cultures. Volunteering is a great way to learn about different lifestyles through interactions with people who come from various areas of life. Volunteers also get to experience the gratitude from those that they are serving which is impactful.

From another perspective, volunteering in a vaccine clinic could be an experience that a health care retiree is longing to rekindle. Some individuals miss part of their previous career after retirement, but do not want to commit to full-time hours. This volunteer effort is a great opportunity for individuals to find purpose after retirement while still balancing their schedules of outside commitments. This may also be true of those who were not previously in a health care field and are looking for a way to be involved in the community, support their social network, or fulfill their need for meaning and direction in life. Regardless of the type of volunteer, their reason for being part of the team will always be different than collecting a paycheck.

Cultivating volunteers in health care is indispensable for a compassionate and effective health care system. Through selfless contributions, volunteers can enhance patient outcomes, promote community well-being, foster personal growth and development, and inspire social responsibility. The volunteer’s presence in health care settings not only fills crucial gaps in the service delivery but also creates a more rounded and patient-friendly health care system. By working with people from different backgrounds, volunteers gain the experience of appreciation of diversity in the community and gain a deeper understanding of human experience.

Benefits to the Community

Volunteering in health care promotes a sense of responsibility and community by uniting people from diverse backgrounds to pursue a common goal. This call to action was put on display at numerous vaccination clinics around the country during the COVID -19 pandemic. Within Southwest Pennsylvania, the team at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center supported over 350 vaccine clinics at a standalone clinic in the community, over 200 clinics at places of worship, and over 380 clinics at various schools in the community. Despite the additional work to support the vaccine efforts in the community locations, these events were critical to bring the community together and provide unity among individuals of all backgrounds.

Receiving aid from volunteers can cause a ripple effect by inspiring others to get involved and address community challenges. With the world in a state of crisis, people throughout the country signed up by the hundreds of thousands to lend a helping hand. Volunteers began delivering medications, driving patients to appointments, or making regular phone calls to check on those who were isolated during the pandemic. Not only did this support the overwhelmed health care system, but it also supported our community members most affected by the pandemic.3

Something not recognized enough is that volunteers offer emotional support and a friendly presence, especially to neighbors in their own community. This can help alleviate patient anxiety and positively influence their recovery. The presence of a caring volunteer can instill a sense of comfort and maybe even reassurance, leading to improved patient satisfaction and overall well-being of the community.

Overall, volunteers have a positive impact on patient experience, can support personal growth, and can benefit organizations. The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the scope of volunteering to allow for a broader range of opportunities and greater sense of accomplishment for some individuals. Proper training and defined expectations are critical for a successful experience for the individual volunteering and the organization leaders. Volunteers have a positive impact on the community and can influence overall efforts through relationships. The permanent future of volunteers in the health care setting remains to be defined, but the outlook appears to be promising for all involved.


References

1. AmeriCorps. New report: 1 in 4 Americans volunteer; two-thirds help neighbors. Accessed July 17, 2023. https://americorps.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2014/new-report-1-4-americans-volunteer-two-thirds-help-neighbors.

2. The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine. Volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic: What are the potential benefits to people’s well-being? Published May 26, 2020. Accessed July 17, 2023. https://www.cebm.net/covid-19/volunteering-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-what-are-the-potential-benefits-to-peoples-well-being/.

3. Burger E. Career Development: How Volunteering Can Create Opportunity. VolunteerHub. Published January 4, 2023. Accessed July 17, 2023. https://www.volunteerhub.com/blog/career-development-volunteerism/.

4. Percy C, Rogers M. The value of Volunteering. Published January 2021. Accessed July 17, 2023. https://www.educationandemployers.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/The-Value-of-Volunteering-final-8th-Jan-2021-1.pdf.

5. Booth JE, Park KW, Glomb TM. Employer-Supported Volunteering Benefits: Gift Exchange Among Employers, Employees, and Volunteer Organizations. Hum Resour Manag. 2009;48(2):227-249.

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