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Could Microvolunteering Promote Psychological & Physical Recovery in Hospital Patients?

Microvolunteering can be described as a task done by a volunteer, or a team of volunteers, without payment, usually to benefit a worthy cause. It can be participated either online of offline, but is more commonly associated with online tasks. It typically does not require an application process, screening or training period, takes only minutes (usually a maximum of 30), and does not require an ongoing commitment by the volunteer. Basically, it can be conducted on-demand, on-the-go, and on a person’s own terms!

There are numerous organizations, like the Hat Box Foundation or Postpals, that encourage people to participate in microvolunteering, with the aim of supporting patients with chronic illness, including cancer. Why should we consider microvolunteering to be a part of the prescribed treatment plan for patients with debilitating illnesses? This is a question that needs some serious consideration.

Support For Patients

Support to cancer patients, monetary or otherwise, has always been shown to be beneficial in improving the quality of life, but are they the only factors that needs to be considered in enhancing the healing process and help to keep the disease under remission? To date, there have been few studies that attempt to answer this question. Here is where we need to consider the importance of social connectivity, especially volunteering as a means towards this.

As an example, a recent study showed that when mice bearing human tumors were exposed to chronic stressful conditions, including isolation from other mice, the tumor metastasized faster; it was shown to be otherwise when kept away from isolation, highlighting the importance of social connectivity as means to better health. Stress responses have been shown to be detrimental in the healing process; for instance, in a study where beta blockers were administered to triple negative breast cancer patients, the chances of surviving the treatment phase, staying in remission was significantly higher compared to those who were not administered beta blockers. Drugs like beta blockers reduce stress response by counteracting the sympathetic response involved in stress; this highlights the importance of reducing body responses to stress to aid the recovery process, whether it’s through medications, volunteering or other means.

The Wellbeing / Volunteering Connection

In terms of promoting a state of wellbeing, studies have shown that volunteering promotes a state of eudemonic wellbeing. Eudemonic wellbeing is basically a qualitative measurement system that measures the personal satisfaction rate based on some of the core value systems (6 parameters consisting of autonomy, environmental mastery, finding one’s purpose in life, personal growth, feeling of self-acceptance and a sense of positive relationship with others). The same study also showed improvement in a sense of social wellbeing ( “Volunteer Work and Hedonic, Eudemonic, and Social Well-Being;” Joonmo Son and John Wilson). The results have been shown to be statistically significant.

Couple of recent studies, one from Harvard School of Public Health and the other one by Okun, Morris A “Volunteering by older adults and risk of mortality: A meta-analysis” show that volunteers spend less time in the hospital (up to 38% less compared to non-volunteer peers), and in the latter study mortality rate was reduced by 47% with a 95% confidence interval.

Additionally, it has been seen that with the use of appropriate technology, like for instance online tools like Ingenium, where the older population could socially interact/support each other (akin to what happens in microvolunteering), there is significant enhancement of creativity and overall well-being, especially leading to overall improvement in quality of life and better work performance. In a related study called “Oldies Media Aware Study” people above the age of 60 years are encouraged to support and socialize using online platforms like Ingenium, with the aim of enhancing the quality of life ( “Enhancing Creative Thinking Abilities through the use of Social Media;” Ron Corso and Charlie-Helen Robinson).

The Positive Effects of Volunteering

Interestingly, it has also been shown that volunteering can have multiple positive effects not only in the aging population, but also among adolescents too. In a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers from the university of British Columbia faculty of Education and Department of Psychology have shown that among 10th graders who just spent one hour of volunteering/week to help elementary school children in after school activities had a significant reduction in multiple inflammatory markers in their system, along with reduction in cholesterol and BMI levels over 10 weeks of study. This suggests that volunteering for a cause helps to improve cardiovascular health overall. In addition to physiological benefits, there was also improved personality traits including better self-esteem, mental health, mood and feelings of empathy.

With the increasing introduction of free wi-fi to patients in hospitals, particularly in larger establishments, accessibility to online microvolunteering from a patient’s bed is becoming ever more a reality. As microvolunteering tasks can go to a patient, rather than the other way round, the potential of using the positive side affects of volunteering to improve a patient’s wellbeing could be a game changer. Indeed there have already been a small but growing call for doctors to prescribe volunteering as part of the repertoire of improving a patients health and wellbeing – see here and here.

Hence, the role of volunteering as a positive life changing model is beyond doubt whatsoever. It is of urgent necessity that volunteering, in specific microvolunteering based on the ease associated with it, be prescribed as part of a physician prescription geared towards faster patient recovery and overall wellbeing.

First published in October, 2016

Guest Author: Rohit Warrier