The Big Interview: VIEW talks to NI Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride


Image: VIEW editor Brian Pelan, left, in conversation with Dr Michael McBride IMAGE: Kevin Cooper

The Big Interview: Dr Michael McBride, left, Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland, explains to VIEW editor Brian Pelan why he believes that volunteering has a crucial role to play in delivering strong and positive outcomes to the wider public

VIEW: What’s the extent of volunteering at present in the Northern Ireland health service?

Answer: It’s extensive but I think there’s opportunities for it to be expanded further. We last looked at the numbers of volunteers in the healthcare system in 2011. At that stage there was 1,500 people volunteering in a variety of roles. There’s further work being undertaken by the Public Health Agency with a report later this year. I’d be very confident those numbers can be increased significantly. And why I think it’s particularly important is because of the added value that volunteering brings, not just for the health service, but actually for those volunteering as well.

Q: You said at a recent conference at Crumlin Road Gaol that “Involving volunteers in the a statutory health and social care setting is not about replacing paid staff. Volunteers must not be seen as cheap labour – providing services that paid staff should be doing to keep costs down”.

A: It is about volunteers being integral to the team that’s delivering the service, whatever those services might be. Whether it’s in the healthcare centres or the hospitals. They’re not an add-on, they’re not an optional extra, they’re integral to the care delivery team. The important thing to say here – and this is particularly at a time when there’s financial pressure in the health service – they’re not a substitution for staff. They complement but they don’t substitute. I know that sometimes that’s a concern of trade union colleagues, that this is a cheap way of securing labour where there’s actually a need for paid employment. It’s not about that, it’s about complementing existing paid roles.

Q: Would you have concerns if volunteers were being used as “cheap labour”?

A: I would have fundamental concerns because it flies in the face of what volunteering is about. This is absolutely not about substitution – it is not about reducing cost – it’s about improving quality and volunteers can add so much to improving the quality of health and social care.

Q: Is the health service too reliant on the voluntary element.

A: The word ‘reliance’ would suggest there is an element of job substitution going on. It’s all about adding value. I think volunteers are experts and often bring their own life experience to a particular situation. So if we take a particular example, for instance long-term conditions and support for other people living with long-term conditions. Those individuals who volunteer to support others when they themselves are living with the same long-term condition can bring expert knowledge, practical tips and support that often a healthcare practitioner can’t do. So they add to that holistic care.

Q: Can you tell our readers about the strategic public health framework: Making Life Better, and how that relates to volunteering?

A: Making Life Better is the Stormont’s executive’s blueprint for how we will improve the lives of the community here in Northern Ireland and how we will improve our life expectancy. Volunteering is identified in that strategy because we know that volunteers bring real benefits to the recipients of the volunteering.

Q: How do we ensure that volunteers in the health service are properly supported.

A: The Health and Social Care Board, working with the Public Health Agency and Volunteer Now, produced a regional framework for volunteering and social care. It ran from 2014 to 2017. It outlined a framework for encouraging volunteering in the health service. It makes the case for why volunteering matters and the framework required for quality volunteering, including the support and training that needs to be in place so that individuals are able to give their best, and also the importance of recognising the contribution that volunteers make.

Q: There is obviously a financial element to providing support for volunteers. Is that difficult at a time of austerity and cutbacks in the health service.

A: Well let me answer that by giving you a good example. I talked at the event at Crumlin Road Gaol about CLARE, a community organisation in north Belfast. It’s basically looking at a local response and engagement to supporting older vulnerable people in the community, so it does several things. What it does is it identifies what the needs of individuals are from what their wishes are, what their aspirations are and what their capacity is, and it identifies assets in the local community, and then it provides them. These are local community champions, providing support to older people in the community. It builds a caring community and it prevents and reduces pressures on the health service. It’s an invest-to-save case. I can see the CLARE example in north Belfast being a model that has real potential benefit in realising some of the aspirations within Making Life Better. I think that volunteering and that community-based approach is a strong and very compelling strategic case for us investing in it.

Q: Is there a need to explain to the wider public about the benefits of volunteering.

A: We’re encouraging volunteering for anyone over the age of 16 and you don’t need to have any particular skills or knowledge. Statutory organisations will work to support you in your preferences and provide the training. This will bring benefits in terms of your employability, or your CV. We also want to attract more older people to volunteering as they are a huge asset for us. The life and experience of these people – what they’ve contributed to society, what they’ve contributed in terms of bringing up their families, but also they have an opportunity to give something back and benefit from that. There’s nothing more wonderful than feeling good, knowing that you’ve made a difference to somebody’s life that day.

Q: How do you ensure that volunteers have the right skills to deal with people who might be seriously ill.

A: There is a responsibility for employers to make sure that they have the appropriate support for volunteers. There is no such thing as saying ‘right, sign a form here, be a volunteer and we’ll let you loose’. The Making Life Better framework is absolutely about encouraging volunteering, making sure it’s quality volunteering, that the recipient of the volunteering gets value out of that, but most importantly the volunteer gets value out of that also and , feels that they’ve contributed to a job well done. I think there’s more we can do. in terms of attracting people to voluntering. I think the top 10 tips published by Volunteer Now at a recent launch was a really impressive toolkit for local government. Also as Chief Medical Officer I would be missing a trick if I was not communicating to the public that there is real benefits for you in terms of your mental health and wellbeing that volunteering good for your health.

Q: Have you done voluntary work?

A: I have in the past, yes. When I was a teenager I volunteered with Volunteer Service Belfast. I can remember wallpapering in west Belfast. I recall putting paste over wallpaper at one point until I was advised that wasn’t what you did. I learnt how to ensure that you started at the door and worked your way around so that the light didn’t catch the joints of paper. I also did gardening, One of the team in my department has organised a number of events where we go off to Glebe House, a young people’s facility, and we chop down trees. I have done it once or twice, not as often as I would have liked.

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