4 February 2014 14:35

There are more than 100,000 hospice volunteers in the UK whose contribution reduces hospice costs by an estimated 23%.

Experts in end of life care at Lancaster University have contributed to the first comprehensive picture of volunteer activity in specialist adult palliative care in the UK.

The new study, published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, found that volunteers play a crucial role in hospice care.

Researchers at the International Observatory on End of Life Care, Marie Curie Palliative Care Research Unit, University College London Medical School and the Institute for Volunteering Research gathered data from two-thirds (194) of the UK’s adult hospices and specialist palliative care services who involve volunteers.  Of these 79% were voluntary (charitable) sector services and 21% were statutory.

It found that volunteers were commonly involved in day care (where non-resident patients receive care services available to inpatients including some medical care) and bereavement services but also entirely ran some complementary, beauty therapy/hairdressing and pastoral/faith-based care services.

Researchers also found that the voluntary sector services had more volunteers overall, and volunteers in direct contact with patients and families than statutory services.  The voluntary sector services were more likely to involve volunteers (offering professional skills) in day care, bereavement services and home-based care.

Other main findings:

  • Volunteers were most commonly involved in day care and bereavement services. They also gave emotional care to patients and, in at least half of the settings, to patients’ families
  • In 68% of services volunteers were involved in counselling, a highly skilled and emotionally demanding role
  • In nearly half of organisations where volunteers were involved with inpatients, volunteers sat with patients in the last hours of life – demonstrating how much volunteers contribute to core end-of-life care
  • In nearly a third of organisations volunteers also provided help in patients’ homes, such as running errands or providing a ‘listening ear’
  • Creative/diversional therapies, beauty therapy/hairdressing complementary/alternative therapies, and pastoral/faith-based services were most commonly run entirely by volunteers – and free of charge
  • Volunteers offered their professional skills for free - mostly beauty therapists/hairdressers, complementary therapists and spiritual care workers

Bridget Candy, researcher and principal investigator of the project at the Marie Curie Palliative Care Research Unit at UCL, said: “Our comprehensive survey shows that volunteers are involved intrinsically and extensively in specialist adult palliative services.   We should acknowledge their immense contribution and ensure that their support needs are well understood.” 

Professor Sheila Payne, the Co-Director of the International Observatory on End of Life Care, said: “I am delighted to see the publication of the results of this important survey of hospice volunteers in the UK.  Their work contributes hugely to improving patient and family experiences by providing personal, compassionate and non-professionalised support.”