The Nuffield Trust was commissioned to evaluate the projects. We used a mixed methods approach to evaluate the projects, with 63 semi-structured interviews with staff, volunteers and local stakeholders, in addition to an analysis of changes in hospital activity for the recipients of services, using a matched control group drawn from English hospital data.
The evaluation resulted in a mixed set of findings. From our interviews, there was evidence of services that had made an impact by providing practical help, reassurance and connection with other services that could reduce isolation and enable independence. Those involved with the projects felt that volunteers and project staff could offer more time to users than pressurised statutory sector staff, which enabled a fuller understanding of a person’s needs while also freeing up staff time.
But the analysis of hospital activity data in the months that followed people's referral into the projects did not suggest that these schemes impacted on the use of NHS services in the way that was assumed, with no evidence of a reduction in emergency hospital admissions, or in costs of hospital care following referral to the social action projects. The one exception was the project based in an A&E department, which revealed a smaller number of admissions in the short term.
This evaluation has generated lessons about how voluntary sector projects can gear up to work effectively with some of the most pressured parts of the NHS. It provides valuable lessons in turn for NHS staff and commissioners to get the best out of social action projects of this kind.
Georghiou T, Ariti C, Davies M, Arora S, Bhatia T, Bardsley M and Thorlby R (2016) Harnessing social action to support older people. Research report. Nuffield Trust.