Rapid recruitment and deployment of a team of “Helpers” to manage the covid-19 pandemic

The initial phase of the covid-19 pandemic placed a huge burden on hospitals, which had insufficient time to prepare for the influx of severely ill patients. As cases rise again, we describe a means of supporting the workforce should there be a large second wave.

We want to share our experience of the rapid introduction of a team of “Helpers” in an acute NHS hospital in the UK. The aim was to enable our already reduced workforce to perform their duties optimally and reduce workforce stress. Helpers were deployed to perform covid-19 specific tasks. Like any previously untested model, some things went well and others not so. It was a process of constant reflection and improvement. We don’t pretend to have invented the perfect model but hope that our experience can be valuable to others who could implement similar schemes.

We announced a plan to recruit Helpers in March 2020. We recruited the family / friends of staff members, targeting the 18-24 age group. Within five days, 21 Helpers had volunteered, completed a short recruitment form, attended a group induction and started work. Eleven more Helpers were recruited a week later.

Instead of references, an ‘NHS Sponsor’ already working in the hospital wrote a supportive statement. Applicants completed a “Request to Commence Prior to Disclosure and Barring Service Check” form, supported by a risk assessment. Roles were limited to indirect and incidental patient contact. An informal uniform was introduced, improving team morale and cohesion.

Roles and organisation

In normal times, procurement is an overlooked and undervalued department which functions quietly in the background. However, in managing the covid-19 pandemic, it became central to almost every aspect of the hospital, delivering vital items such as personal protective equipment and medical devices. Without a small army of Helpers, procurement may have been unable to meet the needs of the hospital. 

Other valuable roles included: helping with administrative tasks in the Occupational Health Department, helping field phone calls and collecting patient notes for the Bereavement Office, delivering prescriptions for the Pharmacy Department, cleaning instruments in the Electrical and Bioengineering Department, setting up and running refreshment stations and a staff welfare room, taking phone calls in busy clinical areas and distributing donations from the public. The Helpers assisted with the design and distribution of online and physical posters about the measures required to avoid spreading covid-19. 

Excellent communication both within the team and with the wider hospital was an important factor in the success of this initiative. A dedicated email address enabled staff to request a Helper for a specific role. A single coordinator was used and communication within the team was via WhatsApp, which facilitated instant feedback and a quick response.

Without any control arm, we cannot prove effectiveness. Informal feedback from our staff has been very positive. Staff had the equipment they needed and an easy and effective way of getting more without delay. The Helpers were pivotal in enabling this and it is reasonable to believe that they have improved patient safety, experience and the effectiveness of clinical care.

Feedback from the Helpers showed good job satisfaction, with a high continuation rate. They gained an important perspective of all the roles required to run a hospital. The initiative has had such a positive response from the wider workforce that we hope to continue it during future university holidays. 

Imogen MacDermott, Medical Student at University College London. Currently working as a Helper at Darent Valley Hospital, Dartford, Kent

Competing interests: None declared

Deborah McAllion, Associate Director of Organisational Development and Compliance, Darent Valley Hospital, Dartford, Kent

Competing interests: None declared