Volunteers are working with GPs in areas across England, taking on roles that support practices with their day-to-day work, offering health advice services alongside practices, running 'social prescribing' schemes and working in 'community-centred' GP models, according to a King's Fund report.
The report argues that with primary care under extreme pressure, 'helping GPs to capitalise on the enthusiasm, skills and capacity of volunteers to provide additional support, and enabling general practices to connect more effectively with their local communities could provide new opportunities for delivering care and in re-imagining the future of general practice'.
'At a time when general practice is under pressure there has been a growing interest in ways of supporting the provision of care without placing significantly greater demands on general practitioners,' the report says.
Although volunteers 'are not going to be able to compensate for shortages of GPs' or to replace clinical care, they may be able to take on significant parts of GP workload that relate to social problems, the authors argue. 'Citizens Advice estimates that around 20% of a GP’s time is spent on social problems that are not principally about health, some of which may be better addressed through advice, support and access to community resources.'
The report cites examples from a series of GP practices - or groups of practices - across the country that have set up successful schemes involving volunteers.
In Bristol, the Carers Support Centre works with all 52 practices across the city and a further 26 in South Gloucestershire. The scheme, set up to build GP practices' awareness of carers within their patient population, links patients who are carers to the volunteer-led support service.
In North Lancashire, the Listening Service offers primary care patients the chance to talk to trained volunteer 'listeners' about any issues they are facing, including but not restricted to healthcare concerns. Volunteers work under a formal contract with a GP surgery, and run sessions in a room on practice premises - with administrative help and support in publicising the service from the practice.
Other practices have linked up with Citizens Advice, with support offered from their premises, or with social prescribing schemes.
The Brighton and Hove Impetus service, for example, was set up to 'increase capacity of GP practices to meet the non-clinical needs of patients with long-term conditions and other vulnerabilities such as low to moderate depression, bereavement, social isolation and financial difficulties'. GPs refer patients to the Brighton scheme through a form integrated with their IT systems, and receive feedback on support for patients provided through the service.
The report's authors say: 'It is notable that each approach is described as providing direct or indirect benefit to general practice, and even approaches where the interface between volunteers and the practice is minimal, there is potential to influence the behaviour and culture of the practice and its staff.'
Working with volunteers can provide 'a stepping stone into building a working relationship between general practice and communities'.
They add: 'Our scoping work and case studies found that approaches using volunteers in general practice often focused on specific groups, particularly older people and those with complex needs. This may be a valuable starting point, but identifying how these approaches in turn influence the activities of general practice offers potential for going beyond individual interventions to developing new models of general practice.'
The report warns that funding will be needed to support development of volunteer work in and around primary care, with some schemes cut off when funding dried up. The authors called for more research to identify best practice and 'explore the scale and scope for volunteering activities'.