Open Access Research article

Understanding the role of the volunteer in specialist palliative care: a systematic review and thematic synthesis of qualitative studies

Rachel Burbeck1, Bridget Candy1*, Joe Low1 and Rebecca Rees2

Author Affiliations

1 Marie Curie Palliative Care Research Unit, UCL Mental Health Sciences Unit, University College Medical School, 67-73 Riding House Street, London, UK

2 EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London, London, UK

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BMC Palliative Care 2014, 13:3  doi:10.1186/1472-684X-13-3

Published: 10 February 2014

Abstract

Background

Volunteers make a major contribution to palliative patient care, and qualitative studies have been undertaken to explore their involvement. With the aim of making connections between existing studies to derive enhanced meanings, we undertook a systematic review of these qualitative studies including synthesising the findings. We sought to uncover how the role of volunteers with direct contact with patients in specialist palliative care is understood by volunteers, patients, their families, and staff.

Methods

We searched for relevant literature that explored the role of the volunteer including electronic citation databases and reference lists of included studies, and also undertook handsearches of selected journals to find studies which met inclusion criteria. We quality appraised included studies, and synthesised study findings using a novel synthesis method, thematic synthesis.

Results

We found 12 relevant studies undertaken in both inpatient and home-care settings, with volunteers, volunteer coordinators, patients and families. Studies explored the role of general volunteers as opposed to those offering any professional skills. Three theme clusters were found: the distinctness of the volunteer role, the characteristics of the role, and the volunteer experience of the role. The first answers the question, is there a separate volunteer role? We found that to some extent the role was distinctive. The volunteer may act as a mediator between the patient and the staff. However, we also found some contradictions. Volunteers may take on temporary surrogate family-type relationship roles. They may also take on some of the characteristics of a paid professional. The second cluster helps to describe the essence of the role. Here, we found that the dominant feature was that the role is social in nature. The third helps to explain aspects of the role from the point of view of volunteers themselves. It highlighted that the role is seen by volunteers as flexible, informal and sometimes peripheral. These characteristics some volunteers find stressful.

Conclusions

This paper demonstrates how qualitative research can be sythnesised systematically, extending methodological techniques to help answer difficult research questions. It provides information that may help managers and service planners to support volunteers appropriately.

Keywords:
Palliative care; Volunteers; Role; Systematic review; Thematic synthesis; Qualitative studies