ED volunteers help with patient communication

Program benefits students, patients, and hospital

The third stage of an ambitious campaign aimed at streamlining emergency department (ED) operations gets under way this month as Baptist Memorial Health Care in Memphis, TN, begins recruiting members for a new ED volunteer corps. What’s unusual about this hospital volunteer initiative — named "Experience Critical" — is that it is targeted to young people who may be considering jobs in the health care field. Organizers will look to college and university campuses to fill the ranks.

For several months, the hospital has been "experimenting with four volunteers between the ages of 18 and 21," says Chuck McGlasson, RN, MSA, assistant director of emergency services and pediatrics for Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis. "We’re using them to help in the ED and trying to figure out what we want them to do."

The first phase of the campaign was launched in November 2003. It focused on heightening public awareness of the national problem of ED overcrowding, and made use of public service announcements and billboards. The second phase has involved hospital-based tactics, including communicating with and educating patients inside the doors of the facility and creating a special magazine about the ED. It’s clear that the duties of the ED volunteer corps, McGlasson says, will center on enhancing patient communication, which numerous surveys and studies have shown is the key to keeping patients satisfied, McGlasson says.

The mindset of most ED patients is, "If I’ve been registered, then I should be seen right away," notes Beverly Jordan, RN, vice president of nursing for the Baptist system. "That’s where the volunteers can come in. They can keep family members and patients aware of what’s going on." The average ED patient doesn’t understand the triage system, McGlasson adds, and volunteers can help explain why "first come, first served" isn’t the operative slogan.

Communication key to success

While Baptist Memorial has done much to streamline its admissions and registration process, she adds, a good experience in that area can be negated to a great extent if communication with the patient is not handled well.

"It’s intriguing that all of our research [phone surveys and case studies] has shown that if a person has a less than positive experience in the ED, it’s usually communication-related issues and not quality of care," adds Courtney Liebenrood, corporate senior public relations manager. "When [patients] have opportunities for improvement to suggest, it’s all about keeping them informed: Where is my loved one? What’s going on with them?’ That’s why the volunteer corps is so important."

In addition to addressing this need, McGlasson says, duties of the ED volunteers are likely to include such things as "running labs," stocking linens, providing blankets and pillows to those in the waiting room, and assisting with patient transport by carrying the person’s belongings while an ED employee pushes the wheelchair. "In a hospital, we know that the ED is the front door, where most of the patients come through, where there are high volumes," Jordan notes. "If you ask health care executives what keeps them awake at night, other than reimbursement, it’s staffing and capacity. This [ED volunteer corps] helps both those things."

"With the health care work force shortages we’re dealing with across the country, in the ED specifically," she adds, "if we have satisfied employees and patients, and if we help flow patients through the building, we’ve done our job."

Many people in the target volunteers’ age group are naturally drawn to high-tech, high-intensity careers, Jordan points out, which makes the new program "mutually beneficial" for both the hospital and the volunteers.

Research has suggested that members of this generation are "pragmatic people who are planning early on for the future," Liebenrood says, and that "fun, nontraditional" means will be the best way to reach them. A poster being used to promote the volunteer program features the stark outline of a human head and in large type, the words "Experience Blunt Force Head Trauma."

In smaller type below, the message continues with "And cardiac arrest. And compound fractures." It goes on to call participation in Experience Critical a "career-building experience."

"We’re using guerrilla tactics" like partnering with the university during freshman move-in week, sidewalk drawings, and building signage to creep into their consciousness," she adds. "We’ll have stickers inserted in newspapers on the college campus, and giveaways like bottles of water that say, Experiencecritical.com.’" Those who sign up to help will be offered flexible hours, McGlasson says, with the understanding that "traditional shifts can be thrown out the window."

"We’ll be open to all shifts, but when we start recruiting, we’ll look at the busiest time of day, which is 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.," he says.

"It’s serendipitous," Jordan adds, "that the highest yield times [for the ED] work with college schedules. Weekends are the busiest times."

Allowing a couple of months for recruitment efforts to pay off, the volunteer corps should be in place in plenty of time for flu season, which can hit hardest, McGlasson says, any time from November to January.

Training will be extensive, Liebenrood says, with the ED corps receiving instruction from the hospital’s regular volunteer managers, as well as "a little more specialized training" from the corporate communications department.

It is likely there will be one designated training day a week, McGlasson says, and it will be year-round and flexible.

[Editor’s note: More information on Baptist Memorial’s ED campaign and the volunteer corps is available at the health system’s web site, www.bmhcc.org/. Courtney Liebenrood can be reached at (901) 227-3509.]