Screening, Managing and Terminating Your Healthcare Organization’s Volunteers

Heather SinclairRisk Management

Millions of volunteers donate their time and sweat to healthcare organizations every year, fueled by their desire to support their communities. Whether they’re changing bedpans, entertaining kids, delivering meals, or providing disaster aide, volunteers are an important part of the healthcare industry.

Unfortunately, however, there are cases of volunteers causing harm due to malice or negligence. Healthcare organizations are challenged with using volunteers effectively without compromising the safety and care of their patients.

The first step to utilizing volunteers effectively and at scale is to hire a Volunteer Manager. This person should be in charge of screening, managing, and, if the need arises, terminating volunteers.

Screening your volunteers is essential, even if the volunteer isn’t directly involved with patients. Patients and parents want to know that your staff is safe and trustworthy. Failing to keep harmful people out of volunteer roles can damage your organization’s trust, which can erode community support and funding.

The goal of a background check is to verify the identity of the volunteer and uncover potential problems. These investigations look into criminal histories, sex offender status, and other records.

Your policies should identify volunteer positions that should be screened, identify the type of screening necessary for each position, how the background check will be conducted, and what sort of findings would disqualify an applicant.

If the volunteer is involved with any service that will be paid directly or indirectly by a federal care program, your healthcare organization is mandated by the Depart of Health and Human Services Office to screen them against the List of Excluded Individuals and Entities. The average penalty for failing to catch an excluded person is around $300,000; a serious blow for any healthcare agency.

Managing your volunteers means enacting a strategy that properly involves them. Volunteers should be strategically inserted into operations throughout your healthcare organization. They should be placed in natural, organic places where work needs doing, not standing along the sidelines until someone calls for help.

In many settings, medical professionals are forced to tolerate volunteers who get in the way more than they help, which harms the organization. Assign roles, duties and schedules to volunteers just as you would regular employees. The Volunteer Manager needs to work closely with the heads of other departments to ensure volunteers are being used effectively.

Terminating a volunteer can be just as stressful as firing an employee. There’s always the possibility of legal and political consequences. But the most important goal is the quality of your care to your patients, which means occasionally removing a volunteer.

First, make sure you’ve exhausted all alternatives. Attempt to supervise the volunteer more closely and enforce your rules, assign the volunteer to another position that might suit them better, re-train them in a particular task or technique, give them a break (even well-intentioned people burn out), or refer them to another healthcare agency setting where they may excel.

Second, use a system for all firing decisions that applies to volunteers as well. Usually these systems include conducting investigations and giving warnings/notices.

The actual termination is never pleasant, so do it in a private setting. Inform the volunteer of the termination; don’t argue about it or attempt to counsel.

Volunteers are an essential resource for all healthcare organizations, but only if they are used strategically and treated fairly. With their help, your organization will provide quality service to your community.

Heather Sinclair
Risk Management Consultant

Screening, Managing and Terminating Your Healthcare Organization’s Volunteers