The Big Hospital Experiment review – can a volunteer army save the NHS?

Although this documentary is warm and heartfelt, the central premise – using an unpaid workforce to paper over cracks in the health service – may leave you queasy

The Big Hospital Experiment (BBC Two) is a lovely and heartfelt documentary about community, volunteering and the power of shared humanity, and within a few moments of it starting, I was furious. The cameras follow 14 young men and women who have signed up to work in the Royal Derby hospital for six weeks.

Their motives vary: some of them are passionate about the NHS; others are unemployed or lost and are looking for a calling. Viewers are told, in cautious and tentative tones, that the system is struggling. Nurses call their jobs “a constant daily battle”, because there are not enough people to do the work. They say they cannot cope with the number of people who need their services. Perhaps volunteers could make up the shortfall?

One patient is wearing a T-shirt printed with: “I’m sorry, did I roll my eyes out loud?” She spoke for me. There is a reluctance here to say why the NHS is crumbling, other than a vague aside about there being more patients than ever, which is infuriating. But as the hour unfolded, I realised that if the show would not apportion any blame, then we could, at least, read between the lines. The idea of placing 18- to 24-year-olds on the wards comes from Germany, where volunteering is much more widespread. The idea of using an unpaid, untrained workforce to paper over the cracks, however, is all our own.

There are plenty of reality shows that use the “feckless young people” cliche to devious ends, by making the supposedly workshy do hard work, and there are plenty of documentaries about hospitals. By landing somewhere in the middle, this could have been a disaster. Instead, the result captures the particular intimacy of care work in an unusually frank way, and with a couple of exceptions, it paints warm portraits of the participants, who are eager to do good. The 14 recruits are put through two weeks of healthcare training, and are then placed on the wards, where they help the nurses with their duties.

The staff are concerned that supervising newcomers will be an extra drain on their already stretched-to-breaking resources, and in some cases, they are right to be worried. Erik does not drink tea or coffee, and so has never learned to make a cup.

“It’s so stressful, making a cup of tea!” he says.

“What would you do if someone had a cardiac arrest?” replies Crystal, the ward sister, who is as deeply kind as she is matter-of-fact.

Before his first shift even starts, Will – who has struggled to hold down a job since leaving school – asks if he can rearrange his breaks to accommodate his need for a cigarette . Deborah is given a placement on the renal ward, and has to overcome her fear of changing a stoma bag, and of getting it wrong. When attempting to do it for the first time, she starts to panic and get upset. The patient whose bag needs changing, Josh, sweetly reassures her that she is going to be OK, before he then starts to feel sick, and the staff nurse is forced to take over. They are seconds away from carnage.

But Deborah learns, as does Will. They grow more confident through their experiences, and being of service to others appears to be having a significant impact on their lives already. I am not sure Erik quite has the chops – Crystal worries that he is “too posh to wash” – but still, there are three weeks to go. What is so impossibly lovely about The Big Hospital Experiment is that it talks about care in the language of people and human experiences, rather than in targets and budgets. Eric, a sick elderly man who struggles to eat, has his whole day transformed by the fact that the volunteers have the time to talk to him about his life.

The big problem with this experiment is that it should never be portrayed as a solution to underfunding and understaffing. It is like trying to fix a broken bone with a bit of Savlon. But as an additional initiative, the benefits to both the volunteers and patients are plain. Whether staff should be expected to bear responsibility for untrained workers is another question, but imagine a world in which there is the time and money to have it all. If this show makes anything clear, it is that every one of the nursing staff, who dedicate their lives to looking after other people, deserves it.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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