Volunteering with the NHS during a Pandemic - What is it really like?

With our country facing one of the biggest challenges in history, it was no doubt that an army of volunteers would be required to support our beloved NHS as it is stretched beyond measure. We wanted to share first-hand experiences of medical students volunteering in the NHS to help give you an insight into what it is really like, dispelling some of the myths and showing how you can make a difference.


Kwarteng Sarfo's Experience


In 2014 when I started this medical school journey, I honestly didn’t think this is how it would end. Medical finals reduced to three online tests, a respiratory illness sweeping the nation and a bunch of Instagram challenges. Regardless though, I have seen the good in it. I have seen the hidden side of the NHS. Following my graduation, a week ago, I decided to volunteer, hoping to provide assistance to the various sectors within Imperial NHS Trust that needed. Part of it was the innate altruism that I regurgitated during my medical school interview, but I will be honest, I needed to get out of the house. 24 hours with the family was getting a bit too much. Before I left, I received some serious prayers from my worried mother, in addition to the misleading WhatsApp messages sent from the aunties and uncles, about how to deal with coronavirus. You could say I was “ready” to do what I could to tackle coronavirus. Sunday evening, I moved into the Imperial provided accommodation and completed our online induction modules because you know, social distancing. Later on, I got the email detailing my allocation. “You have been allocated to the Surgery cancer and cardiovascular management department” The who of the who department?

I thought I was going to be honing my skills of cannulation, venepuncture and catheterisation because when I thought “shortage” I thought it meant only “clinical shortage.” I was wrong. For the past week I have been working as a validator tasked with two jobs:

Job number 1

⁃ In normal circumstances, when doctors see a patient, in addition to writing structured notes they are supposed to conclude the consultation. In broad terms, a patient is either discharged or in need of a flow up. Unfortunately considering the ongoing pandemic, this task has been left incomplete by many doctors. This is where I come in. My first task in simple terms, is to look through past consultation and assign a conclusion to the case. This involves looking through clinical notes and making a decision of finality or continuity

Job number 2

⁃ With this upsurge in coronavirus, various patients have had their elective surgeries cancelled in order to curtail the spread of covid-19. This is a brilliant approach, unfortunately, NHS have a policy that doesn’t help the situation. In order to understand this policy, you need to understand the term RTT. This stands for referral to treatment time, that is, the time taken from a patient’s referral to be received at a hospital to when the patient is treated. NHS says, 92% of hospital referrals, their RTT should ideally be 18 weeks. Meaning the time taken from your referral to be received to when you get treated should be within 18 weeks. Another part of this policy is that NHS has a zero tolerance on an RTT of 52 weeks. So, you shouldn’t be waiting for a year to get treated for something you were referred to the hospital for. Of course, this is a brilliant policy but...Coronavirus. This pandemic has caused many hospitals to remove many off the elective surgery list. Inadvertently, this delays a patient’s RTT and with every week a patient is over the 52 weeks threshold, a hospital gets fined a hefty amount, we’re talking pounds in the thousand. This is where I, a recent medical school graduate, who struggles remembering his NHS email password, comes in to “help.”

It has been a super steep learning curve, but I have learned so much! I’ve had a week’s training in Cerner, Microsoft teams and excel and I honestly couldn’t be better prepared to deal with IT related stuff as a foundation doctor. I have come to appreciate the diligent staff that work in the shadows of NHS to ensure the patient we booked 6 months ago attends their surgery on time and at the right date. I have come to appreciate that a hospital isn’t just the medical staff that make clinical decisions rather it includes the superheroes that look through some doctors indiscernible notes, to identify if a patients elective surgery, that was cancelled due to coronavirus, is of a high or low priority. Yes, my current role is very different to what I expected I’d be doing to help this pandemic. Yes, it would be great to find a juicy vein for venepuncture, but I am learning something new I didn’t appreciate before COVID-19.

There’s more to the NHS than the front-end assembly of doctors and healthcare staff. We have some unappreciated superheroes in the backend ensuring you are receiving adequate care in adequate timing.


Charlene Khoza's Experience

Eye-opening. That’s how best I can describe my experience of volunteering so far. I chose to volunteer in a non-clinical role, working to organise and distribute the PPE that the clinical staff need. I have learnt just how much work goes into ensuring there are adequate supplies of the gloves, masks and other essential clinical equipment that keep the hospital going. It is hard. I have learnt about the secret tunnels, doors and routes in the hospital basements that are used to deliver equipment. I have learnt what happens between ordering something and it arriving on the ward. Even though there may be shortages, there is someone working to make sure that staff get what they need. This role has also taught me that sometimes the best way to help is to offer a listening ear. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff are human too and just as afraid of this situation as the next person. They need someone to share those fears with and who can reassure them that they are doing a great job and that there are adequate supplies to keep them safe. Being the voice over the phone telling them those things has been a humbling experience.

I started off feeling unsure about what I could contribute and what would be of most benefit to the hospital I am in. But as time has passed, I have realised that I do have something to offer. Even if it may be something as simple as smile – it makes a difference.

Written by Dr Kwarteng Sarfo and Dr Charlene Khoza


Are you interested in volunteering with the NHS during this time? We recommend searching for volunteering schemes at your local hospital. There are many other ways you can support those around you at this time too. Look out for our next article!

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