Virtual Wards in the NHS – a new approach to healthcare

Over the last few months there has been an increasing interest and awareness of ‘virtual wards’ in the NHS. 

Here, we look at what they are and how digital is helping to ease the bed-blocking crisis in the UK.

Why do we need virtual wards?

Back in January of this year, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, gave a speech in which he outlined how he would tackle the serious problems affecting Britain. 

One of his ‘promises’ was to cut excessive NHS waiting times by introducing virtual wards, which enable patients with a certain range of conditions to be treated at home rather than staying in hospital. 

It’s estimated that over half a million patients, usually elderly and vulnerable people, could be safely and effectively treated in virtual wards, and plans to create about 3,000 virtual beds are in place in anticipation of next winter’s NHS crisis. 

Virtual wards are seen as a viable and practical alternative to discharging patients into care homes for their ongoing treatment. Elderly and vulnerable people, who do not need long-term hospital stays but who are unable to be discharged due to a lack of secondary care, are one of the major reasons for the intense pressure on Accident and Emergency departments at the moment – one of the causes of the ‘bed blocking’ crisis. 

The government has allocated £200 million of additional funding to buy short-term care places in care homes in order to free up beds to help ease the situation. This money is in addition to the £500 million Adult Social Care Discharge Fund, which was announced last September. However, there are other, more cost effective options that the NHS is putting into action.

What are virtual wards?

In order to deal with the backlog and get people out of hospitals who don’t need to be there, the NHS has introduced virtual wards. This involves people being discharged home from hospital after their initial admission, if they are suitable for the project. 

In this way they can receive the monitoring (such as blood pressure and blood oxygen levels measurement), treatment and care they need in their own homes or a care setting, instead of a hospital ward, freeing up the bed for someone who needs it more. 

Current virtual wards deal with patients who have acute or chronic conditions such as frailty or acute respiratory infections including COPD, as well as asthma and cardiac conditions.

It's estimated that virtual wards can reduce the length of hospital stay for orthopaedic post-operative patients by up to three days, can help over 1,000 patients avoid readmission for acute care every year, and reduce the current hip and knee procedure backlog by 6%.

Virtual wards have the potential to ‘treat’ up to 50,000 people a month, and data shows that over 10,000 patients received care through virtual wards in December 2022 alone. 

Virtual ward technology

Virtual wards use technology to offer patients a blend of remote treatment as well as face-to-face support if they need it. The technology involved can include specially developed apps, a variety of specialist platforms, and Bluetooth-enabled wearables and medical devices, such as pulse oximeters. 

Clinical staff are able to remotely monitor the data which the patient has entered or automatically provided through a wearable device, and are alerted if a patient moves outside their individual health parameters, enabling them to take appropriate action. 

Inclusivity is built into the system to avoid digital exclusion. This means ensuring that elderly or frail people, or people who lack the confidence, knowledge or equipment to operate the required technology, are not excluded, and the technology has been designed to be simple for them to operate independently, if support is not available. 

Other considerations, such as how people with cognitive, hearing or visual impairments interact with the technology, have also been factored in, and adjustments made, in order to enhance their independence. 

As technology advances and our society ages, virtual wards will see an increase in use. By employing digital technology to enhance care for patients in their own home setting, the NHS can reduce not only the amount of work that front-line staff have to deal with, enabling them to concentrate on more urgent cases and reduce waiting times, but also improve patient outcomes and quality of life, as well as save money on the overall NHS budget. 

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