The role of volunteers in patient care

A joke brightens the day of an elderly patient. A story is read to a small child. A steady hand is extended at just the right moment. These are just a few examples of what hospital volunteers do every day and, according to the CEOs interviewed for this study, they are doing it very well.

As part of its ongoing research on volunteering and volunteerism, the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy’s Knowledge Development Centre looked at how CEOs from various hospitals in Ontario value donations of time, and what they think of their volunteer resources in general. The study, led by Dr. Femida Handy, asked what contributions do volunteers make to the quality of patient care, how essential are volunteers to the delivery of healthcare, and, are volunteer programs cost effective?

Volunteers support hospitals in a number of important ways, including running the information desk or gift shop, sorting mail, spending time with patients, fundraising, or serving on the board of directors. According to the Centre’s study, CEOs, managers of volunteers, and volunteers themselves place the greatest value on the contributions of volunteers to the quality of patient care.

According to Dr. Handy, volunteers improve the quality of patient care by providing non-medical services in two main areas: contributing to patient satisfaction and reducing anxiety of family members. Volunteers reduce the stress of a hospital stay by providing a friendly face, by answering questions, and by giving directions. Seventy-two percent of CEOs suggested that providing human contact is the single most important component of contributing to the quality of patient care, because it also provides the most support to hospital staff.

Without exception, the hospital CEOs surveyed said their volunteer programs were cost effective. Their responses imply that the benefits delivered by volunteers easily outweigh the direct and indirect costs of volunteer programs, including recruitment and training related expenses. In general, CEOs perceive volunteers as not only providing valuable services in hospitals at very little cost, but also as playing an important public relations role through their frequent interaction with patients and their family members.

The study highlighted the problems hospitals face when recruiting volunteers. Most CEOs with limited pools of volunteers identified a lack of resources to recruit, train, and supervise additional volunteers as the biggest challenge facing their program. To respond to this, some hospitals are encouraging their existing volunteers to help attract others to join the volunteer program. “A happy volunteer is often the best advertisement for a hospital,” said Dr. Handy. The availability of short-term volunteers also poses a challenge to managers of volunteers in hospitals. The short-term volunteer – including people who have been “voluntold” (mandated to volunteer in order to meet graduation or court-ordered community service requirements) – are viewed by some CEOs as a drain on hospital resources. This type of volunteer may not cost much to recruit, but they do need to be trained and supervised. Some hospitals have created volunteer assignments that require minimal training and supervision specifically for these “40-hour volunteers.” Others assign short-term volunteers less demanding or less interesting tasks – a strategy that may make volunteers less likely to continue volunteering after they have completed their 40 hours.

The shortage of volunteers is echoed in the findings of a national survey of volunteering, which found that just 27% of Canadians donated their time to volunteer activities in 2000. This represents a decline of 4% since 1997 (see for more information). According to the Centre’s study, which was conducted in 2003, nearly one third (30%) of hospital CEOs reported that there were certain positions they were unable to fill from their existing pool of volunteers. Obviously, hospitals, like other charitable and non-profit organizations, are competing for the attention of a diminishing supply of volunteers.

Overall, Dr. Handy found that hospital CEOs are aware of these and other challenges, but they feel that the responsibility to meet these challenges lies primarily with the managers of the volunteer programs.

While agreeing that volunteers are essential to the delivery of healthcare in hospitals, CEOs also praised how their volunteer programs were administered. They identified the top three strengths of their volunteer programs as the efficiency with which volunteer intake was managed, the professional leadership of the program, and the positive environment created by the program for both staff and volunteers.

The amount of resources that CEOs allocate to their volunteer departments depends on their view of the impact of volunteers on health-care delivery. The more positive their views, the greater the likelihood that the volunteer programs will receive adequate and continued funding. Hospital CEOs think highly of their professionally managed volunteer programs, are aware of the challenges inherent in sustaining such programs, and place great value on the contributions of volunteers to the delivery of health-care services within their hospitals. This is echoed by the vast majority of CEOs who reported that the strength of their volunteer program reflects the quality and commitment of the volunteers themselves.

This research was funded through the Community Partnership Program of the Department of Canadian Heritage as part of the Canada Volunteerism Initiative. It was based on a study of 27 hospitals in Metro Toronto and the surrounding regions of Peel, Durham, and York Ontario in the winter of 2003. For more information, visit the Information Resources & Tools section of the Knowledge Development Centre Web site at