Healthcare News & Insights

Volunteers go the extra mile to prevent patient loneliness

Volunteers are an essential part of daily operations at many hospitals. While typical volunteer activities involve minimal interaction with patients, some facilities are having their volunteers take extra steps to engage with elderly patients in an attempt to improve the patients’ recovery and outcomes. 

gettyimages-161002310Elderly patients can end up hospitalized multiple times within a short time frame due to various chronic conditions and illnesses. So their families aren’t always able to spend time with them during each hospital stay.

This may make patients feel lonely – which can have negative effects on their recovery.

An article from NPR discusses this phenomenon. It cites a recent study in JAMA Psychiatry showing that social isolation and loneliness can cause changes in the brain similar to those occurring with Alzheimer’s disease, even in adults with no previous symptoms of dementia.

Although the study wasn’t performed in a hospital setting, the results could prove promising for hospitalized seniors. One well-known facility is testing this theory with its volunteer program, according to the NPR piece.

Source of companionship

At the UCLA Medical Center, hospital volunteers act more as companions for patients. Instead of just helping patients with small tasks and delivering messages, volunteers spend significant time with patients, getting to know them personally.

Often, volunteers chat with seniors, learning their life histories and sharing stories. But UCLA also gives its volunteers extensive training to improve their interactions with patients.

Not only do volunteers learn about communicating with patients who have illnesses such as dementia, they’re also taught what to do in an emergency and how to recognize problems that could signal danger for patients. In addition, they learn about the importance of medical confidentiality and how to keep patients’ protected health information private.

Each volunteer is thoroughly trained and vetted since they’ll have extensive contact with patients. Right now, UCLA has about three dozen volunteers involved in the program, and the hospital plans to expand it so more patients can be served.

Why program is beneficial

Having similar volunteers in a hospital can help staff keep better tabs on patients. Many volunteers at UCLA are so in tune with patients, they can sense when trouble’s happening – such as if equipment isn’t working correctly. That takes some of the burden off doctors and nurses.

In addition, volunteers who are more focused on companionship can handle smaller issues that providers may be too busy to tackle, but are still considered priorities for patients. Example: grooming. While hospital staff take care of the essentials, they’re usually not able to help patients comb, brush and style their hair. Volunteers can help with this step, which can make patients feel more at ease.

Ultimately, UCLA’s goal for its volunteer companionship program is to improve patient outcomes and satisfaction scores. Time will tell how successful the initiative will be, but it’s likely to at least make lonely patients feel more engaged during their hospital stay.

Because expanding volunteer services is relatively cost-effective for hospitals (particularly since most volunteers work for free), any positive results caused by the expansion would be well worth the investment. It may be time to evaluate your hospital’s current volunteer program to see if it can accommodate more personalized interactions between volunteers and patients.

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