The women’s movement observed long ago that the personal is political. I’ve had some healthcare experiences this month that allowed me to see volunteer work design from a different perspective.
On September 1, I fell and badly broke and dislocated my right arm at the elbow. After two weeks it was determined that my arm was unstable and I underwent surgery to replace the radial head and repair a torn ligament. I hasten to reassure everyone that I am on the mend, getting physical therapy, in minimal pain, and happy that I’m left-handed! Generally, I wouldn’t be using this monthly essay for a health report, but these facts set the context for how and why I learned a lot about the role – or lack of it – of volunteers in institutions.
Last Decade’s Volunteering May No Longer Be Relevant
Hospitals and other healthcare facilities are among the most well-established involvers of volunteers. The public is fully aware of hospital volunteering and there is general agreement that volunteers bring a sense of community caring to patients and staff. But, what exactly are these volunteers contributing to healthcare right now?
Like many of you, it’s become second nature to me to be alert for “volunteer sightings” wherever I go. I enjoy seeing volunteers in action, learning what they do, and talking to them about their activities. During my month of hospital visits, including one increasingly-rare overnight stay after surgery, I laid eyes only on information desk volunteers (whose “information” consisted entirely of giving directions to lost patients and visitors) and gift and thrift shop clerks. Unfortunately, true to the stereotype, I met no one under age 70 and few who seemed particularly energetic.
Before going any further, I acknowledge that the hospitals where I was treated undoubtedly have a range of volunteer assignments and types of people filling them who did not happen to cross my path. This is not a negative review of hospital volunteering. Rather, we can use healthcare – which is an environment most of us can picture reasonably accurately – as a case study for what is wrong in many, many traditional volunteer-engaging facilities and organizations, from schools to museums to parks.
The issue? We are simply missing the boat by not directing volunteers into work that is of greatest value to the users of our services right now. By not asking volunteers to do what is truly needed to give exceptional service in a changing world, we cheat our consumers, remain distant from our missions, and offer little that is motivating to skilled and enthusiastic prospective volunteers.
Adapting to the “New Normal”
I represent a growing demographic seen by all hospitals. I’m a first-wave Baby Boomer with a graduate degree; I am divorced and live alone. Here are just three ideas for how such factors and new needs might be met creatively through volunteers.
- Being alone. Family and friends are critical players in a patient’s treatment and recovery, but a growing number of patients are forced by divorce, distance, or death to go through the healthcare maze with no one at their bedside. Why not offer a volunteer support person to anyone who reports at patient registration that she or he is alone, whether living singly or even without a companion that day? The types of things such a one-to-one volunteer assignment might include are a pleasant conversation during one of the many inevitable waiting room periods, perhaps hosting a designated table in the snack bar (which could be for anyone alone that day and wanting some company), arranging transportation, assuring a loved pet is fed by a friend, telephoning for a few days after treatment just to check in, etc. Allow a volunteer to adapt to each individual’s needs (by mutual choice, of course), even if it means being with the person in the emergency room, or in recovery, or late at night.
Most importantly, the volunteer could be trained to ask: Do you need any clarification or information? Patients, particularly if in pain or panic, often cannot absorb everything said to them the first time. If there is any confusion about care instructions, next steps, whatever, the volunteer could be authorized to get the facts for the patient.
- A place to regroup, think, or go online. Outpatient treatment is today’s norm, but the spaces available to patients and their companions are the same as 50 years ago. Where can someone sit in comfort before going home or in between multiple appointments? Why not have some writing surfaces on which to complete forms? An area where cell phones are permitted and actually work? Why not an Internet-accessible computer for research or even checking e-mail? Organized something like a first-class airport lounge, access to this area could be controlled and supported by volunteers.
- Filling the gaps of treatment silos. Between HIPAA, medical specialization, and insurance rules, few components of the American healthcare system mesh seamlessly. For example, my orthopedist checked the outcome of my surgery and whether my incision was healing, and then prescribed a certain physical therapy regiment. But he could not set it up for me. He could refer, but then it was up to me to schedule getting a molded splint and start treatment. It was mid-day on a Thursday, and I had to beg to be “squeezed in” before the weekend or risk an unprotected arm eight days after surgery. I asserted myself and all turned out well, but no thanks to the doctor or hospital; they did not even give me the correct phone number for the physical therapy center!
Why not transform “information desks” to live up to their name, perhaps on a hotel concierge model? Why not compile a database of commonly-referred-to outside services, fact sheets, treatment checklists – anything that may be helpful to patients? Most important is that the volunteers could be trained to find answers. Not to respond to medical questions, but to assist, for example, in getting a correct phone number or even placing a call for someone in pain and having the use of only one hand.
Now I can already hear the reactions to such lines of thought:
- Volunteers cannot give medical advice and we want to protect against the remotest chance of that.
- Patient confidentiality would be violated.
- We have no room for these sorts of services. (I can’t resist noting that closing the gift shop would free at least one space.)
- Our current volunteers don’t have these skills and would need a lot of supervision to do this.
My response is that such objections have some validity but are temporary obstacles. First, it takes a will to change and determination to do what’s best for the patient or whomever you serve.We are presently spending time, money, and effort to maintain too many low-priority volunteer assignments. Can we afford to keep doing that? Don’t we owe it to our clients and to volunteers to figure out what would really be welcomed (including by paid staff, actually) and of greatest help?
Walk in Your Clients’ Shoes
The most critical thing a volunteer resources manager can do is pay attention to what customers are experiencing; what are their needs and wants? Instruct volunteers to walk through your setting to experience it just as clients do. Or, collaborate with colleagues and ask volunteers to exchange walk-through visits to each other’s facilities.
Volunteers should ask these questions: What’s confusing or hard to find? Does the current signage help? When and where do questions arise and no one is there to ask? Is the food in the cafeteria what people want? Are there enough chairs where people have to wait? How pleasant or harried are staff members, including those at front desks, completing forms, or taking money? Who does and doesn’t smile? What’s the best part of the experience? The worst?
Then, do the tour again from special perspectives. What might a child experience? Someone on crutches or visually impaired? Someone who is not fluent in English or illiterate? And so on.
From these observations – which, given today’s pace of change, ought to be done annually – you will discover whole new arenas of volunteer work. Then be prepared to deal with naysayers and to engage volunteers in proposing how they might address what they discovered.
One science center with which I consulted kept hearing from their volunteers that exhibit interpretive signs were missing letters or even gone entirely, which the volunteers strongly felt diminished the museum visitor’s experience and made the museum look bad. But correcting the signage was the job of the swamped graphic art staff and administrative reaction to the volunteers’ reports was irritation, not appreciation. Was there really no way that the art department could have supervised volunteers in repairing the signs or obtaining donated services from professional artists to reduce the backlog? What is the point of having volunteers give tours because “that’s their role,” when something else helpful to visitors needs priority attention?
Perhaps, in the future, all volunteer position descriptions will come with an expiration date! Volunteers should expect and want to assess whether the services they are providing are really what’s needed the most today, not yesterday.
- Can you see the value of this approach in your setting?
- How do you get to know what your clients and visitors experience when dealing with your organization?
- Have you created any new volunteer roles to respond to changing needs? How about eliminating any outdated roles?
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