The hospitals in Singapore truly appreciate the work of volunteers who give up their leisure time to be by patients’ bedsides—even at odd hours of the night. Growing in numbers and taking on larger roles, these relentless volunteers are not holding back on their dedication to public service.

Volunteers actively involved in patient engagement activities

Taking the situation at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) for example, the number of volunteers has surged eightfold – from 100 in 2010 to 800 just last year. Similarly, the Institute of Mental Health also records a big hike in volunteers, witnessing a hike from 150 to 400, within the same time frame.

Volunteers at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, on the other hand, more than quadrupled to 150 people last year from a mere 35 in 2011. Meanwhile, even though it only began operations in November 2016, the Yishun Community Hospital (YCH) already has 120 volunteers helping out.

These individuals’ contribution to patient welfare has caught the attention of the Health Ministry. A representative for the MOH remarked, “Volunteers play an increasingly important as well as diverse role in healthcare delivery. They augment the workforce in healthcare institutions in certain care-related activities; but more importantly, bring care and concern to patients.”

Volunteers at the hospitals take on a wide array of active roles. This includes manning booths, spearheading support groups, and handling logistics and administrative work. Some responsibilities have led volunteers to the wards, undertaking patient engagement activities.

At Changi General Hospital (CGH), volunteers help with “play therapy”; whereby volunteers partake in memory card games and mahjong with patients—under a nurse’s supervision.

Another such scenario can be seen at National University Hospital (NUH) through the Silver Connection programme. Reading a newspaper out to the patients or solving Sudoku puzzles with the seniors are just a couple of the activities done by volunteers there.

Nurses able to carry out pressing tasks with their freed-up time

Mrs Eunice Toh, director of development fund and volunteer management at TTSH expressed that “volunteers can actually help to fill gaps. Those who go into the wards don't just sing songs – though we still have and appreciate such volunteers – but make an invaluable contribution in patient care.”

More importantly, they can free up nurses to attend to crucial tasks or patients who require higher levels of care. One such volunteer, Mdm Lim, tends to patients from 4.00am until sunrise every Saturday. She accompanies patients to the toilet if they can walk unassisted or get a bedpan for them. Mrs Toh noted the simplicity of these tasks, but they still helped “otherwise, a staff member will have to do them”.

Based on official figures, over 24,000 nurses and 1,400 therapists work in the public sector. Even though hospitals do not actively recruit volunteers, their contribution in terms of hours spent is noteworthy. In 2016, TTSH volunteers clocked over 33,000 hours overall. “This is equivalent to hiring an executive for 13 years, or 13 executives in one year,” highlighted Mrs Toh.

Hospitals worried about extent of volunteers’ tasks

Some parties have doubts as to what (and how much) these unspecialised personnel can do. Ms Noreza Sailani, a senior nurse manager at NUH, explained, “There may be limitations as to what volunteers can do for patients as they are not qualified healthcare professionals.”

She added that a volunteer can check if a patient requires a drink, but a nurse needs to be present when the drink is given – depending on the patient’s medical condition.

Besides that, only trained professionals should carry out physical aspects of care such as patient transport. Hospitals have even brought up concerns regarding patient confidentiality, volunteers innocuously offering advice on remedies, citing religious teachings or discussing patient conditions with external parties.

All volunteers are prepared on privacy matters at NUH. Similar to TTSH, a confidentiality agreement must be signed by volunteers. “Generally, volunteers are not there to 'cure' a patient or to dispense advice; rather, to provide relief and a listening ear,” clarified Mrs Toh. MIMS

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