The government has announced its plans to invest more in virtual wards in order to help with intense pressures on the healthcare system. This is a new approach, with many people wondering how this could impact the National Health Service (NHS) and how the experience is if you or your family need to use virtual wards.
What are the virtual wards?
Virtual wards are a new approach to healthcare delivery. The concept is designed to provide care for patients with long-term conditions in their own homes rather than in a hospital setting. This aims to improve the quality of life for patients, reduce the burden on hospitals and ultimately improve health outcomes.
The virtual ward model operates through the use of technology and a multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals. The team works together to monitor the health of patients and provide support and treatment. The technology used in virtual wards includes remote monitoring devices, telehealth, telemedicine services, medical devices, and secure digital platforms for communication and information sharing.
In practical terms, this means that a patient, located at their home, is monitored remotely by healthcare professionals. The patient receives a kit with the required equipment, which also includes the ability for video calls. Care may also involve face-to-face treatment from multidisciplinary teams based in the community.
The implementation of virtual wards in the NHS requires the collaboration of a number of different stakeholders. This includes healthcare providers, technology companies, patient organizations, and government agencies. It is important to ensure that virtual ward programs are well-designed and integrated with existing healthcare services.
When did the Virtual wards start?
According to Transform England NHS, the first pilot of virtual wards started during the first wave of the pandemic. The trial was implemented on Covid-19 patients and it was supported by NHSX. It enabled the patients to provide regular data on symptoms to their NHS clinical team while being at home. The approach aimed to reduce hospital pressures.
This model is called “remote monitoring” or “tech-enabled virtual wards.” It was pioneered by the NHS. More specifically, it was used at Watford General Hospital in March 2020 by Dr Andy Barlow and Dr Matthew Knight. By June 2021, the service was available at 92 hospital sites in England.
Why could virtual wards improve access to healthcare?
According to NHS England: “The NHS service has faced record demand, with the latest data showing more A&E attendances than ever before.” This resulted in a dramatic deterioration in waiting times for urgent care. In December 2022, the average response time of ambulances for emergency calls was five times longer than the targeted one, exceeding 90 minutes.
Using virtual wards means that hospitals will be able to have more available bed capacity, which reduces waiting times. The target is to discharge patients earlier and patients to have follow-up treatments at home, but also to avoid hospital admissions.
Advantages of virtual wards
A review of virtual wards has shown that they can be highly effective in improving the quality of care for patients with long-term conditions. According to the DHSC (Department of Health and Social Care), there is increased evidence that virtual wards are a “safe and efficient alternative to hospital care, particularly for frail patients.”
One of the key benefits of virtual wards is that they can reduce the amount of time that patients spend in the hospital. This can be extremely beneficial. First, it can help to free up beds in hospitals for those who need them most. Second, it can help to reduce the risk of patients contracting hospital-acquired infections. Third, it can help to reduce the costs of healthcare, as patients will not be in the hospital.
Virtual wards can also help to improve the quality of life for patients. By being at home and in a more familiar environment, patients can maintain their independence, social connections, and routines. It has improved patient satisfaction and well-being, as it has reduced anxiety, and decreased the risk of hospitalization or readmission.
Virtual wards have also improved health outcomes for patients. By providing ongoing monitoring and support, patients can learn to manage their conditions more effectively.
Improving access to healthcare is another benefit. This is because patients do not need to travel to a hospital to receive care. This can be particularly beneficial for patients who live in rural areas or who cannot travel. Additionally, virtual ward teams are able to provide care for a larger number of patients than traditional hospital-based care, helping to reduce waiting times.
One of the biggest challenges is ensuring that patients have access to the same level of care as they would in a physical ward. This can be difficult, as healthcare professionals need to see and examine patients. In addition, it is vital to ensure access to emergency care, when the patient’s health deteriorates and there is no healthcare professional present.
Another challenge is ensuring that patients are able to use the technology involved in virtual wards. This can be difficult for some patients, particularly those who are elderly or who have never used technology before.
The success is dependent on numerous factors, including the reliability of technology and infrastructure, the expertise of the multidisciplinary team, and the level of support and engagement from patients, including effective communication.
Moreover, we need to consider the human aspect. How would you feel if you were a patient in a virtual ward? Would you be stressed about being at home without a professional?
What is the plan for the virtual wards?
The plan is to expand further the measures that were taken in 2021. This includes having virtual wards for patients with a variety of conditions, for instance, heart failure, pneumonia, and services that provide urgent responses to older people.
The plan is part of the two years investment of an extra £6.6bn that the government announced. By the end of 2023, it is estimated that up to 50,000 patients a month will be using the service.
The care in the community will be expanded to ensure care at home, without hospital admission. According to DHSC: “Up to 20% of emergency hospital admissions (are) avoidable with the right care in place.”
Virtual wards aim to improve healthcare services. The NHS is investing more in them. The benefits of them seem promising, considering the impact, reviews, and patient feedback. They also have challenges and effort is being made to mitigate them. Could this be the future of healthcare on a much larger scale in an increased and aging population?