BBC 2’s Big Hospital Experiment, which aired throughout September, followed fourteen 18-23 year olds volunteering at the Royal Derby Hospital. After two weeks of training, they began closely supervised work on some of the hospital’s busiest wards. While the programme’s premise is familiar, its promotional trailers – featuring apparently overwhelmed volunteers – were many miles from my own experience of volunteering in the NHS. Thankfully, on watching it I was pleasantly surprised by how closely it reflected the journey that I see many young volunteers undertake.
The idea that young people can play a positive role to support the NHS is not a new one. As an Ambassador for the #iwill campaign, which aims to make youth social action part of life for those under 20, I know that young people have the skills, energy and ideas to make a valuable contribution to a variety of sectors and a meaningful difference to society.
The NHS is no exception to this. Volunteers at the Royal Derby Hospital don’t generally provide clinical care on its wards. The purpose of The Big Hospital experiment was to test, in a controlled way, whether volunteers could enhance the amazing care provided by the nursing team. The young people featured on The Big Hospital Experiment therefore found themselves tackling an array of challenges from the outset: in Deborah’s case, dealing with copious amounts of bodily fluids to Erik’s struggle to make the perfect cup of tea. Even fourth-year medical students – as I am currently – are not allowed to change stoma bags as we saw Deborah doing on one of her first shifts. The importance of accurately recording a patient’s basic observations also seemed like a huge responsibility for a volunteer.
Yet, week by week we have watched them tentatively navigate these high-stress situations to overcome their fears and inhibitions. The reactions of others to their efforts have chimed with my expectations – with patients and staff underestimating their true potential – but what they have achieved is both heartening and surprising. As a result of the experiment, the Royal Derby Hospital has agreed to introduce clinical volunteers on a permanent rolling basis.
The ‘volunteering’ showcased in the documentary is not reflective of the youth volunteering opportunities generally on offer in UK hospitals. There is an argument that young people shouldn’t be put in such a high-risk setting. Certainly, they shouldn’t be used to plug gaps. The life experience, maturity and the age-appropriateness of the opportunity all need to be taken into account so that a considered judgement can be made and the right controls and checks put in place.
However – as we see in the documentary – the contribution of volunteers can enhance the patient experience. Young people are already volunteering in hospitals, hospices, care homes and other health services up and down the country. They are meal-time buddies and dementia friends, pharmacy runners, readers, social activity organisers and governors. These opportunities benefit the young people themselves – by providing an insight into NHS careers and increasing their skills and confidence – and can also benefit both the service and its community.
For me, volunteering in the NHS inspired me to pursue a career in medicine, empowered me to take control of a long-term health condition and nurtured a desire to advocate for children and young people in the development of NHS services. For some young people, volunteering is their first real experience of responsibility. For the hospital itself, and the wider system, these young volunteers bring unparalleled energy, compassion, curiosity and time. All these elements help to foster an environment where staff can flourish and patients can benefit.
The Big Hospital Experiment is only the tip of the iceberg. Youth volunteering opportunities in the NHS are increasing. Many hospitals offer roles for those over 18 and, with support from the #iwill Fund, Pears Foundation has funded 30 hospital trusts to create new volunteering opportunities for people as young as 10. Whether it’s in the NHS, or more widely, we should all be doing more to recognise the incredible role young people can play in making a positive difference to our society.
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