The nation’s 420,000 trained hospice volunteers generate more than $469 million in annual savings for hospice providers while administering and supporting essential services for patients, according to the National Hospice & Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO).
Hospice volunteers provide more than 19 million hours of service annually. The estimated financial value of a hospice volunteer’s time is an estimated $24.69 per hour, NHPCO reported. The industry group released the data in recognition of this year’s National Volunteer Week, April 7-13.
Under the Medicare Conditions of Participation, volunteers must account for 5 perfect of a hospice provider’s patient care hours. Some hospice providers consider volunteers to be a member of their interdisciplinary care teams along with nurses, chaplains, social workers, the medical director, and other professionals.
Volunteers provide a range of services, but in many cases the most critical is simple companionship.
“We all deserve to have someone with us at the end of life,” said Karen Powell, Massachusetts-based volunteer coordinator for Amedisys, Inc. “A lot of people think that everyone has someone to be with them as they are dying, but that is not the case. Some people have no one to hold their hand, no one to remind them that they matter.”
A volunteer can often focus on aspects of care that clinicians tending to a continuously growing patient population are unable to address.
In one instance, an Amedisys hospice location admitted a patient who loved literature, but no longer had the strength to hold a book. Powell connected the patient with a college student volunteer who read to him and discussed books. In another case, a volunteer wrapped a hospice patient in a nursing home in blankets and took her outside in a wheelchair. The patient was moved to tears, saying that it had been so long since she had seen the autumn colors.
Hospice providers are rich with stories about the impact that volunteers have on patients. Behind the scenes, volunteers also support corporate efforts by completing administrative tasks, helping to recruit other volunteers, and creating efficiencies in hospice workflows.
“The opportunities for volunteers to provide support to a hospice patient are endless,” Ashley Green, volunteer manager for Crossroads Hospice & Palliative Care. “Volunteers help support our agency by assisting with patients and providing them with comfort. They provide administrative support by helping with clerical projects and filing in the office. They help our staff with special projects to benefit the agency. The time volunteers spend with our patients or assisting in the office allows staff to focus on other tasks.”
Like any member of the hospice care team, volunteers need training. Training requirements can vary from state to state. Massachusetts for example, requires the hospice to provide 16 hours of initial training to volunteers, as well as 10 hours of annual continuing education.
Initial training for volunteers involved in direct patient care can include education on the hospice philosophy of caring for the patient’s whole being (physical, social, emotional, spiritual) as well as supporting the patient’s family. They also learn communication skills; background on the types of diseases that are common among hospice patients, safety issues and precautions, and a range of cultural beliefs about dying. Volunteers helping with back office work also need to understand the company’s procedures and workflows.
As with paid positions, hospices need to seek out and vet qualified candidates. They look for qualities such as trustworthiness, patience, and a desire to give back to their communities, as well as a solid understanding of what hospice is and does.
“Many of our volunteers have had a family member or friend who was in hospice. They understand the hospice philosophy, and they can go out into the community with us and talk about their own personal experience,” Powell said.
Volunteer coordinators and managers recruit continuously, making use of internet resources such as VolunteerMatch, as well as attending volunteer and job fairs, making presentations at community centers like colleges and libraries, and soliciting referrals from their current volunteers. They meet with veterans’ groups and visit schools of nursing, chaplaincy, and social work.
Part of the challenge is to overcome individuals’ fears or misconceptions about what it means to be in hospice.
“I talk about what hospice truly is to anyone who will listen,” Powell told Hospice News. “Sometimes when you say the word ‘hospice’ people get very fearful, but when they go through the training and start to engage with patients they realize that they get back more than they give.”