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Impact of volunteers in the emergency department

10 September 2020
17 min read
Volume 29 · Issue 16



Fundamental aspects of patient experience have been reported as substandard in emergency departments. Hospital volunteers can improve the patient experience in inpatient settings. However, evidence is limited on their impact in emergency departments.


To determine whether emergency department volunteers could enhance patient experience through assisting with the psychological aspect of patient care and patients' nutritional needs.


Patients attending an emergency department responded to a questionnaire as part of a cross-sectional study. Comparisons were made between when the volunteer scheme was running and when there were no volunteers. Outcomes included patient experience of emotional support from staff and access to food and drink.


Patients present when the volunteer scheme was running reported obtaining food and drink more often (96/124 vs 20/39, % rate difference 26, 95% CI 10–42, P=0.002) and that a member of staff offered them something to eat and drink more frequently (96/146 vs 19/52, % rate difference 29, 95% CI 14–45, P<0.001). There was no difference between patient responses when the volunteer scheme was running and not for emotional support from staff (49/68 vs 14/21, % rate difference 5, 95% CI -17-28, P=0.63).


Hospital volunteers made a substantial contribution to providing food and drink to patients in the emergency department. Emotional support from volunteers was limited.

Emergency departments in the UK are facing increasing demands and economic pressures (Care Quality Commission (CQC), 2017a; NHS England and NHS Digital, 2018). These pressures along with staff shortages can lead to substandard care. In some instances, aspects of fundamental patient care, such as emotional support and provision of nutrition, have been reported by patients to be poor in emergency departments (CQC, 2017b).

The psychological and emotional aspects of patient care are essential parts of holistic care and the patient experience (Gerteis et al, 2002; Committee on Quality of Healthcare in America, 2001; National Clinical Guidelines Centre (NCGC), 2012; NHS National Quality Board, 2012; Paparella 2016). In the 2018 CQC survey of adult inpatients 28% of patients stated that they were unable to find a staff member to talk about their worries and fears (CQC, 2019). A Royal College of Nursing (2012) report found that 78% of nurses stated that on their last shift, they were unable to adequately comfort patients due to a lack of time. Furthermore, the CQC's survey of emergency department patients in 2016 found that of those who were feeling distressed only 48% felt that a member of staff definitely reassured them and 57% said that a doctor or nurse discussed their fears and anxieties about treatment and their condition (CQC, 2017b). There is therefore a need to improve this aspect of care. This study investigated whether volunteers can help improve patient experience by providing emotional support to patients in the emergency department.

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