SINGAPORE - A manpower crunch and healthcare staff having to shoulder added responsibilities over the years at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) have spurred the hospital to tap an alternative source of help - volunteers.
From April to June, seven volunteers wearing badges gave patients pointers for their visual field test, recording their glaucoma eye-drop schedule and demonstrating the correct way to apply eye drops at the hospital's eye clinic.
The volunteers, aged 50 to 76, are part of a pilot programme aimed at improving patient experience.
They have also helped to address issues that have sometimes gone overlooked due to the busy schedules of healthcare professionals, said Dr Owen Hee, the programme lead and a consultant at TTSH's ophthalmology department.
For instance, up to 78 per cent of 110 patients at the eye clinic have been found to be applying their eye drops incorrectly.
In addition, of the 14,000 visual field tests performed at the clinic in a year, 46 per cent of these tests have produced unreliable results. This is often due to patients not being properly prepared for what to do during the test, Dr Hee said.
"The programme is structured in such a way that (we are) getting help from the volunteers to get vital information (from patients)... so we can make better management decisions for patients," he added.
The eye clinic sees 140,000 patients every year.
The volunteers also assist in registration, orientation and identifying patients with fall risks - tasks usually done by patient service associates. They typically volunteer for two to three hours, several times a week.
Feedback from patients has been encouraging, with 93 per cent of the 110 polled welcoming the volunteers' involvement.
Glaucoma patient Steven Wong, 76, thinks that the volunteers are "very helpful".
He has been a patient at the clinic for about 20 years, and wishes that there had been volunteers earlier to give him time-saving advice.
"Most of them are very well versed in the information they are sharing," said the retired union executive.
Volunteers are either recruited or selected from TTSH's 700-strong volunteer pool. They have to be assessed on their competency, such as whether they ask patients appropriate questions and whether they are able to ask follow-up questions, said Dr Yeo Wee-Lee, a senior consultant at TTSH's medical oncology department.
The volunteers then underwent training led by a team of doctors, nurses and patient service associates before the pilot began.
A framework for accountability is in the process of being developed, Dr Yeo added.
Volunteer Molly Lim, 65, finds fulfilment in advising patients on how to apply eye drops and recording their glaucoma eye-drop schedule.
"Healthcare is a subject matter that I have been very interested in because I've had close relatives who have succumbed to chronic diseases," said the retired senior assistant director of human resources who has been volunteering with TTSH for the last six years.
"I learn (from volunteering) and I also want to educate people whom I meet to look after their own health."
The second phase of the pilot at the eye clinic, which starts in November, will involve volunteers giving patients a vision function questionnaire before and after treatment, said Dr Hee.
Other pilot volunteer programmes by TTSH are Hospital Elder Life Programme - to prevent delirium in elderly patients - and the Inpatient Total Knee Replacement Volunteer Programme, which trains volunteers to help patients in simple rehabilitation exercises in the wards to enhance their recovery.
The three volunteer programmes come under TTSH's Centre for Health Activation, which was launched on Friday (Oct 20) by the Ministry of Health's Second Permanent Secretary Ng How Yue at the Singapore Patient Conference 2017, held at the hospital.
The centre is a training and research institute which aims to train volunteers to work in para-clinical areas alongside healthcare professionals, as well as to empower patients and caregivers to support other patients.