Since the beginning of the pandemic, St John Ambulance has achieved extraordinary feats in its role supporting the NHS. But despite the recent pace and scale of operations, it has not lost sight of the need to measure the impact of its dedicated volunteer activity. In this guest blog, their Head of Insight and Impact, Claire Burley, explains.

It seems more like a decade than a year ago that St John Ambulance launched its response to the pandemic in earnest. As a longstanding partner of the NHS, it was agreed in early March 2020 that we could upskill our first aid volunteers to help frontline staff in hospital emergency departments for the first time.

Volunteers that are normally seen giving first aid to the public in football stands and on village greens were given rapid digital and face-to-face training, to equip them for shifts on the frontline. Within only two weeks, our first group of trained volunteers were performing roles at Lewisham Hospital, to free up NHS clinicians for critical tasks and to help ensure patients received the best care.

The duties of our hospital volunteers include taking a patient’s vital observations, helping them to eat and drink, and spending time with them, answering questions and providing emotional support. To date, 5,000 volunteers have completed St John’s training and patients at more than 50 hospital trusts, including NHS Nightingale London, have benefited from their care.

Not only that, but St John’s training—which was rightly recognised with a global award last month—equipped our volunteers to continue supporting ambulance trusts up and down the country. By the end of November, our ambulance crews had responded to more than 6,000 calls to 999.

Alongside this, we brought young people into the mix, training 14-17 year old cadets to work in a covid-safe way in our logistics functions and ambulance hubs, where duties include storeroom checks and washing down vehicles. Our adult volunteers began to pick up what’s known as ‘winter pressures work’ to ease the burden on the NHS during this season, which is very busy at the best of times. Also, we began working for the first time with Pharmacy2U to provide post-flu vaccination support and we continued to provide our falls service (attending to emergency calls for those who have fallen in their home). We helped with cancer and blood donation services and our homeless outreach in England’s towns and cities has never been in such high demand.

Volunteers and the vaccination roll out

If that was not enough, autumn 2020 saw us begin to prepare for St John’s biggest programme in peacetime: training 30,500 volunteers by spring to assist the NHS Covid-19 vaccination programme. With more than 200,000 hours of patient-facing Covid-19 care already under our belts at that point, we were well placed to respond and deployed our first trained vaccinators to sites on 11 January. Spurred on by how valued the contribution of our cadets has been, we are now also training hundreds of 16 and 17 year olds to be deployed in roles at our training hubs and at NHS Covid-19 vaccination centres.

But despite the dizzying scale of this activity, we knew all the while that it was not enough to guess at its impact; although a delight to see, we could not only rely on the testimony of our volunteers in their enthusiastic social media videos.

It is essential for us, as for all charities, to gather data systematically to prove the value of every £1 donated to our cause. We need to provide robust evidence to our partners, such as NHS England. And at St John, we also want this evidence to guide us on legacy: how we engage with future volunteers, especially young people, and how we continue to use our skills to build health resilience in communities after pandemic.

St John’s impact on patient care

We have therefore put comprehensive programmes of evaluation in place to gain the perspectives of NHS frontline staff, managers, volunteers and also patients. Focusing on our support to hospital and ambulance trusts and the Covid-19 vaccination programme, we are using a selection of methods such as qualitative interviews, surveys and focus groups. We triangulate these qualitative interviews with internally gathered data (such as volunteer hours, activities and quantitative surveys) and with external data sets from NHS trusts (such as ambulance response data).

Our questions are far-reaching and ambitious—from assessing levels of compassionate care provided by our volunteers to seeking evidence that a patient has an improved likelihood of better longer-term health outcomes. We ask NHS professionals to measure their confidence in the clinical skills of our volunteers, while interrogating the evidence to see if the flow of patients through certain wards has been smoother as a result of St John’s support.

Although these evaluation programmes will not be complete until later in the year, they are already yielding important learnings which, thanks to our design, we are feeding back in real time to make immediate and continuous improvements.

‘Really calm and very reassuring’

Overall, the early signs indicate that St John’s volunteers are having a strong impact on the NHS and on patient care. This is backed up by our informally gathered feedback, which has been consistently positive. This comment from Dr Tina Kenny, Chief Nurse for Buckinghamshire NHS Healthcare Trust, is representative of the sentiment among NHS professionals:

The work of St John Ambulance up and down the country has been enormously valuable, both to patients and our healthcare staff.

And this, from Rob Conyers, Head of Patient Experience and Volunteering at Tameside and Glossop Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust:

Their help is hugely beneficial. The volunteers are giving extra help to our patients emotionally as well as physically, which provides great support for our staff as well.

Patients too, have been making all the right noises. For example, Greg Hobbs, the first person to be vaccinated by a St John volunteer vaccinator said this:

She was really calm and very reassuring and it all went smoothly. I was informed at every step what would happen and felt safe.

We are delighted that our volunteers are getting the recognition they deserve after a truly testing year. We’re confident that our rigorous evaluation data will back up such responses and, as such, we will be able to clearly demonstrate the value of their contribution.

St John Ambulance volunteers are assisting with the UK's Covid-19 vaccine roll out. Here's how their biggest ever peacetime project is unfolding and how they're measuring their impact Click To Tweet

Photo credit:  St John Ambulance, ‘St John Ambulance volunteer vaccinator with Greg Hobbs, January 2021, London ExCel.’

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