Volunteers as Cutting-Edge Technology

If volunteers were a new technology or drug, every hospital would be clamoring for them.  At least that was my impression after hearing Dr. Robin and Meredith Youngson speak at the 2018 California Hospital Volunteer Leadership Conference. The couple shared their moving story and cited findings from randomized controlled trials that spoke to the positive health impact of compassionate care.  That impact included: decreased need for pain medications, decreased levels of anxiety, faster wound healing, fewer hospital nights, fewer complications and readmissions.  It just so happens that many of these outcomes decrease the costs of healthcare, too.

How might volunteers contribute to these outcomes? Dr. Youngson identified practices that cultivate compassion and support healing: human connection, small acts of kindness, active listening.  It turns out that these acts tend to be the ones in which volunteers specialize.  This is especially important as many clinical professionals in medicine are feeling stretched and burned out by a system that excels at treatment, but struggles with healing.

I wonder if the secret sauce of healing may be a result of the “luxury of focus” that volunteers often have. They are not pulled in as many directions as paid staff. As a result, they can take their time with patients, families, or visitors in need. Seemingly small acts matter – escorting patients through the maze-like corridors of the hospital, delivering a newspaper or cup of coffee along with a smile and kind word, or visiting with patients in ER waiting rooms or on the units.

Too often, these activities are viewed as sweet, soft, or nice, but certainly not necessary.  They seem to pale in comparison to the latest technology, promising pharmaceuticals, and specialized procedures.  But Dr. Youngson warned that if we omit attention to basic human needs, we can limit the effectiveness of the most excellent clinical treatment. He shared that caring for people with empathy can create cascading reactions for healing. The opposite is also true. Dehumanizing interactions can set off cascading reactions of wounding.

As someone who studies the value that volunteers can bring to the organizations, communities, and clients they serve, I’m fascinated to discover clinical outcomes that align with volunteer activity.  It adds a new layer to the research I’m conducting and leaves me wondering what other outcomes we might find if we could study the influence of volunteers in other settings.  Just as importantly, I’m curious about what organizational practices we need to develop and sustain to ensure that staff and volunteers are equipped to work well together so they can elicit these outcomes with patients or clients.

Thanks to Joan Cardellino of the California Hospital Association for the opportunity to be part of this thought-provoking experience!

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