Volunteers help hospitals improve the patient experience

As hospital leaders strive to engage patients and their families and improve the organization's overall experience, some have found that the people who are most effective at achieving these goals are not staff or healthcare providers at all.

Mercy Medical Center and UnityPoint Health-St. Luke's Hospital, both located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, have long relied on volunteers to keep their facilities running smoothly and to act as support systems for patients, The Gazette reports. In 2014, Mercy's volunteers racked up more than 143,000 hours of service, and UnityPoint-St. Luke's contributed more than 95,000 hours.

A mix of retirees, stay-at-home moms and students comprise each hospital's corps of volunteers, who perform tasks such as stocking inventory, entering data, manning information desks, and perhaps most importantly, acting as liaisons to make patients and their families more comfortable.

"Most volunteers have been patients. They know what it's like. They understand because they've been there," Sister Marilyn Ward, director of Mercy's volunteer services, told the newspaper.

Indeed, the concept of patient-to-patient mentorship has caught on in hospitals around the country, Wall Street Journal health reporter Lisa Landro said in a recent interview.

Patient mentors offer advice about a broad range of diseases, conditions and procedures that they have experience with, from a hip or knee replacement to more long-term conditions such as diabetes or kidney disease, Landro said. The opportunity allows mentors an opportunity to give back, while patients get to hear from people who have been in their shoes.

"The doctor and nurse can tell you, 'this is how you're going to feel after surgery,' but they don't know, they haven't had the surgery--most of them anyway," she said.

Most major hospitals offer some sort of peer mentorship or volunteer program, which can vary depending on how much and what type of training they offer, according to Landro. There's even an emerging role for paid mentors, who might receive more formal training and be asked for a longer-term commitment.

Volunteers are even increasingly present in hospital C-suites, as more health systems rely on patient advisory councils to gain valuable perspective about patient experience and satisfaction, FierceHealthcare has reported. Volunteers also help some hospitals meet the growing need for language interpreters.

To learn more:
- read the article
- watch the interview