With the elective care backlog in excess of 7 million and record high workforce shortages, the healthcare system is in desperate need of solutions to manage the excess demand combined with the limited levels of supply. However, since the pandemic, there has been a flurry of new technologies and solutions that are set to redefine the delivery of healthcare. One of these tools, Virtual Wards, has established a strong base of supporting evidence and is set to transform the way the NHS operates.
In response to the rising elective care backlog, NHS England, NHS Digital and Health Education England are collaborating to support Integrated Care Systems in adopting Virtual Wards. A two year transformation programme outlines the goal to have 40-50 Virtual Wards ‘beds’ per 100,000 by December 2023.
But what is a virtual ward and how likely are they to be successful?
What are virtual wards?
Virtual wards are designed to provide patients with the level of care they need but in the comfort of their own home, rather than the hospital. Care and support is delivered through technology such as apps, technology platforms, wearables and medical devices.
The technology allows virtual ward teams to monitor a patient’s heart rate, oxygen levels and skin temperature, without the need of being in physical contact with the patient. All of the data is uploaded to the dashboard every few minutes, to allow for the continued monitoring of the patient’s wellbeing. The patient can easily contact the nursing team through the virtual ward technology should they start to feel unwell.
Key benefits of virtual wards
Reduce pressure on hospital beds
There is currently huge demand for hospital beds due to rising levels of chronic disease and an ageing population. This has put immense pressure on an already stretched healthcare system, with bed occupancy rates of close to 90%. Virtual Wards allow hospitals to free up capacity for patients who are in critical need of physical care. This enables hospitals to manage a large cohort of patients and use workforce resources more effectively.
This is achieved through early discharge for those who no longer need regular intervals of physical care, but also by completely avoiding hospital admission in some cases. This means higher priority admissions can be prioritised and waiting times can be reduced.
Delivers cost savings
Virtual Wards have been adopted by several trusts across the country and a series of cost savings have already been reported. For example, Croydon Health Services NHS Trust adopted the Virtual Ward solution in July 2020 and has reported an increase in efficiency, leading to an average combined cost savings of £742.44 per patient.
Enables patients to have time back with family
Patients can take control of their rehabilitation as they can be discharged from the hospital at an earlier date. The wearable sensors update clinicians in real time, helping the remote management team to intervene sooner and ensure the patient receives the same quality of care as they would in hospital. This means the patient and clinicians can have peace of mind around the patient's safety, whilst the patient gets to enjoy the comforts of their own home.
This helps to improve the mental health of the patient as they can interact with friends and family and start to improve their mobility by giving them back a sense of freedom.
Key challenges of virtual wards
Clear guidance on how to implement Virtual Wards effectively is essential to ensure the proper adoption of the solution, otherwise, trusts may fail to deliver the expected benefits and may in fact jeopardise care.
It’s crucial to source the right solution to ensure the Virtual Ward is clinically compliant and effective in achieving patient care goals. Furthermore, it’s key to consider the future applications of Virtual Wards beyond the current needs and targets. Some Virtual Wards providers may not supply all the features needed for future targets, which may mean a different solution will need to be implemented in the future. Having multiple solutions in place could cause issues with integration, consistency and quality, so the aim should be to implement a single solution that is adaptable to meet future needs.
Furthermore, there is a risk that Virtual Wards could increase inequality as digital technologies could disproportionately exclude people from certain groups such as older people, those on lower incomes, those in social housing, rural populations, or the unemployed.
The NHS Long Term Plan commits to focusing on health inequalities, therefore this should be considered when implementing Virtual Wards. This could include:
- Provision of necessary equipment
- Access to WiFi
- Support and training
A Quote from Masood Ahmed, Chief Clinical Information Officer, NHS Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin ICS, on Virtual Wards
"Virtual wards represent a paradigm shift in healthcare delivery, bringing with it the promise of increased efficiency, cost savings, and improved patient outcomes. By looking beyond our own sector, we can gain fresh perspectives, ideas, and best practices that can be adapted to healthcare. To fully realise these benefits, we should look to other industries that have successfully implemented virtual models and draw upon their lessons learned, especially through the pandemic. From remote work to online education, industries that have embraced virtual models have found that the keys to success include establishing clear guidelines, investing in training and education, and ensuring accessibility for all. By applying these principles to virtual wards, we can transform healthcare delivery and provide better care for all."
Find out more about virtual wards at HETT North 2024
This year’s HETT North is the perfect opportunity to learn more about the benefits and application of Virtual Wards and digitally enabled healthcare. The packed full agenda includes a variety of CPD-accredited sessions which will explore the likes of virtual wards, AI, automation and workforce challenges.
Join us and 1,400+ digital health peers on 28th February 2024 for a full day packed with CPD accredited educational sessions, interactive activities, and networking opportunities with 100+ innovative suppliers and 100+ expert speakers.