The British Red Cross and the NHS: a history of helping
Last updated 6 July 2023
As the National Health Service celebrates its 75th anniversary on Wednesday 5 July, we take a look back at our proud history of working in the health and social care sector.
Most people know about the voluntary nurses and doctors who worked with us during the First and Second World War.
But what people may not know is that The British Red Cross has been working with the NHS since it was established 75 years ago.
Here's how it all started.
In 1870, the first Red Cross horse-drawn ambulances were used during the Franco-Prussian war. And in 1921, Red Cross volunteer Percy Lane Oliver set up the UK’s first blood collection service.
When the NHS was founded after the Second World War, we were there to help. Making sure everyone in the UK had free access to the same level of care was an ambitious ask.
The Red Cross launched a five-year plan to help in the interim period before the new NHS system could be fully realised.
As part of this, we ran nine auxiliary hospitals with 505 beds in total. These acted as a stepping-stone between hospital and home for those ready to be discharged.
Over the decades, we also started to focus more on what we called welfare services.
These services, such as outpatient canteens and bedside services like our hospital library trolley, helped a person's general health and wellbeing. Understandably, hospitals didn’t have the time or resources to focus on these elements of patient care, and so our services were warmly received.
Two of our main services involved providing meals on wheels. They were well received - in 1975, our volunteers in Derry-Londonderry were described as “The most wonderful ladies in the world".
We also provided medical loans – a legacy which continues to this day through our wheelchairs and mobility aids service.
In fact, we are still the biggest national provider of short-term wheelchair loans, and often the only option for people who’d otherwise be facing months stuck on the sofa.
How does the British Red Cross support the NHS today?
Our support within health and social care has changed a lot over the years.
We are present in hospitals and A&E departments across the UK, helping to relieve pressure on the NHS and reaching people who may have fallen through the cracks of the system.
We still bridge the gap between home and hospital, working with each person to offer them the personal support they need. This includes getting them home safely and quickly, doing the shopping or sorting out the heating.
And we work with people who frequently attend A&E to get to the root of the cause. We also support people who are suffering from loneliness and social isolation by getting them back out in their communities.
As well as providing a sympathetic ear for patients, our work eases up time for hospital staff to focus on what they do best.
We proud to say that we support thousands of people every year. In 2022 alone:
- We supported 56,000 people leaving hospital.
- Our British Red Cross ambulance service provided over 42,000 hours of support to a total of 20,500 people.
- We provided practical and emotional support to help over 69,800 people to live independently at home in 2022.
- We delivered 194,500 toilet aids, specialist beds, bath lifts, walking frames and other specialist tools to help people maintain their independence and dignity.
- We also made over 67,500 wheelchairs and other pieces of mobility equipment available through our mobility aids service.
Our services are ongoing all year round. But we can also scale up them to meet increased need or pressure – such as during the winter or, more recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Support across the UK
From Shetland to the Borders, our social prescribing services were busier than ever last year.
We worked with health colleagues to keep people active and reach out to vulnerable people in our communities. We also met social, emotional and practical needs to help individuals improve their health and reduce the pressure on our systems.
In Wales, our “waiting well” service pilots provided emotional and practical support to people in their home while they waited for surgery or treatments. We developed these alongside three Welsh health boards, and they were a huge success.
In Northern Ireland, we ran assisted discharge services in four out of the five NHS trusts. We helped patients leave hospital safely, which freed up hospital beds. We also provided people with vital practical and emotional follow-up support for four weeks after they got back home, to help keep them out of hospital.
Helping to drive change in the NHS
We've gained many insights over our long relationship with the NHS, and this means we can help drive change and put people at the heart of health and social care.
Our latest report Nowhere else to turn: exploring high intensity use of accident and emergency services, shows that people from the most deprived areas of the UK are more likely to be in poor health and most likely to attend A&E most frequently.
High intensity use' applies to a patient who attends A&E more than five times a year. Some people have visited A&E more than 300 times in one year and we estimate that this has cost the NHS £2.5bn per year.
People who are rushed repeatedly to hospital have a real impact on emergency services, representing almost a third of ambulance journeys (29%) and a quarter (26%) of admissions. We believe that there are ways that we can better support people who frequently attend A&E so that they don’t feel they have nowhere else to turn.
The British Red Cross provides High Intensity Use services across all seven NHS regions. This can help reduce A&E attendance, and non-elective admissions among people who frequently attend, by up to 84%.
In 2022 we supported 857 people through our High Intensity Use programme, improving health outcomes and helping to relieve pressures on the NHS.
Helping to combat loneliness
We also call for changes to combat the impact of chronic loneliness and social isolation on health and wellbeing. We support 100,000 people a year who are experiencing loneliness.
In a recent parliamentary debate about loneliness, MPs thanked the British Red Cross for its 'first class' support to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Tackling Loneliness & Connecting Communities.
Co-Chair of the group, Tracey Crouch MP said: "Without its support, we would not be able to have the vast conversation that we are having."
None of this would be possible without our staff and volunteers
From 1870, our staff and volunteer have been providing people with vital practical and emotional support.
Today, people like Naeem in Birmingham provide holistic, non-medical support to people in crisis. That may simply be sitting down with someone and talking to them about the problem are experiencing.
Naeem worked with Craig who 'started ringing the ambulance out of desperation'. Craig said: "I couldn’t access the services I wanted to access, so I was left with no other option. I just needed someone to talk to. It's like a minefield.”
Thanks to Naeem, Craig now knows he can get the support he needs without phoning an ambulance.
Sue and Trish transported a patient, Sheila, home in a British Red Cross ambulance in South London. Once home, they ensured Sheila was settled in, safe and comfortable. They take time to get to know each patient and understand their individual needs, so they can support them effectively.
Sue says: “They have spent all this time getting better, it would set them back for us to leave them in a cold, empty house. Humanity-wise, that doesn’t sit well with us, and it’s why we do this job.”
Emergencies in the UK
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