An estimated 1.7 million people volunteer for health or care services across Britain, and we have previously highlighted the important contribution volunteers are making in acute hospitals.
For the vast majority of people, their main point of interaction with the NHS is general practice. At a time when general practice is under pressure, volunteering has been highlighted as a means of engaging with communities.
Our new report Volunteering in general practice: opportunities and insights shares the different ways volunteers are contributing to general practice, explores 10 case studies and shares learning on factors that influence development and sustainability.
Approaches to supporting volunteering
The report highlights four different approaches to supporting volunteering in general practice:
- Enabling general practice – volunteers supporting a practice in its everyday running and activities
- Shared premises and space – practices that are co-located with organisations that work with volunteers to provide services.
- Social prescribing – linking patients in primary care with sources of support in the community, with volunteers contributing to creating those links, supporting them to access activities and providing support.
- Community-centred general practice – a new model of general practice that reflects social as much as medical support and where volunteers contribute to practice activities as well as volunteering their own skills and capabilities for the benefit of the community.
Rather than a hierarchy of approaches, each provides an opportunity to build a working relationship between general practice, voluntary and community organisations and local communities.
Making it happen
Developing partnerships based on addressing some of the challenges faced by general practice through drawing on community assets and resources was a common starting point. In some cases that impetus came from practices themselves, but the opportunity for voluntary and community organisations to take a lead was often important.
Volunteers are not an essential component of all models, but where they are, they play an important role in enhancing capacity and reach into communities, and bringing the community into practices. Volunteering in the community-centred practice approach, however, is as much about volunteers co-creating what is provided as it is about the practice working with volunteers and the community. For example, in the 17 Halton community wellbeing practices in north west England, this has resulted in a greater focus on supporting volunteering more widely, than volunteer support for the practice.
Whatever the focus or approach, our report highlights that investment in both the volunteers and the practices is essential. The need to prioritise the management and support of volunteers is crucial. Charities in health and care have a long history of supporting volunteering, and so working with voluntary and community organisations can enable practices to build on that capability.
As general practice moves towards developing new models of care, there are opportunities to embed volunteering, but future work needs to address the sustainability of funding, value of volunteering for general practice and how best to share practice.