Reaching the virtual ward target

The NHS has a target of 40-50 virtual wards per 100,000 people and to have 10,000 virtual beds available in time for winter. But what are virtual wards and how can they be utilised to provide benefits for patients and the health service?

Virtual wards enable patients to receive care safely and conveniently at home, rather than in hospital.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has recently published draft guidance on the use of virtual wards to treat patients with an acute respiratory infection.
The guidance states that people with an acute respiratory infection (ARI) could be monitored from their own homes using technology platforms that will feedback vital information on their condition to clinical staff. A patient’s temperature, heart rate, oxygen saturation, blood pressure, and respiratory rate can all be monitored and fed back to healthcare professionals, often automatically.
The technology means that people can be discharged from hospital earlier or monitored from home without being admitted in the first place, freeing up hospital beds.

Evidence has also shown that virtual wards can be cost saving for the NHS. Analysis by NICE’s external assessment group estimated the technologies saved around £872 per person compared with inpatient care, and £115 per person compared with care at home without a technology-enabled virtual ward.
Virtual wards are now an important part of the health service, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic - and they offer numerous benefits, including improved accessibility, reduced healthcare costs, and enhanced patient engagement.
As mentioned above, by reducing the need for a patient to be cared for in hospital, this significantly reduces the costs associated with their care. This also frees up a hospital bed for someone else who may need it.
Virtual wards can reduce wait times for consultations and follow-up appointments, ensuring that patients receive timely care and support. Wait times can be reduced for those using the virtual wards, as well as those on traditional ward, as fewer people will be waiting for ward beds.
Virtual wards also have several benefits for the patients that use them in terms of conveniency and comfort, as well as health outcomes.
Virtual wards allow patients to receive medical care from the comfort of their homes, reducing the need for frequent hospital visits. This convenience is great for individuals with chronic illnesses or mobility issues.
Virtual wards empower patients to take a more active role in managing their own health. Patients can access their health data, communicate with healthcare providers, and engage in self-care practices.
Virtual wards can address geographic differences or barriers in access to healthcare, allowing patients in remote or underserved areas to access high-quality healthcare
services without the need to travel long distances.
When it comes to patient outcomes, virtual wards can offer improved continuity of care by providing a seamless transition from hospital to home-based care. This ensures that patients receive consistent and uninterrupted care, reducing the likelihood of complications or readmissions.
Continuous monitoring in virtual wards allows for early detection of health issues and therefore timely intervention. Clinicians can address problems before they get worse, and potentially prevent serious complications.
Virtual wards help reduce the risk of hospital-acquired infections. This is especially important for individuals with compromised immune systems or when there is a flu or Covid outbreak – which is likely over the winter period.

Making a success
NHS Confederation recently published a report on virtual wards, which set out the critical factors needed to make virtual wards a sustainable model in the future.
The report follows research involving a range of NHS leaders, including integrated care system (ICS) chairs and chief executives, integrated care board (ICB) digital leads, clinicians, and senior operational and finance staff.
When it comes to virtual wards, the report claims that it is important that staffing is properly planned, with permanent and secondment-based opportunities for clinical staff. It is hoped this will reinforce virtual wards as a permanent service which can offer real benefits to career development. Students should also get experience of virtual wards, as well as traditional placements.
The report states that virtual ward expansion needs to be treated holistically and on a large scale in order to share best practice and learn from other programmes. At the same time, local data should be used to make bespoke, local healthcare decisions that address the needs of that population in every ICS.
When planning virtual wards, the report says that clinicians and patients should be involved in the design.
However, the report also recognises a workforce and skills shortage, which is having an impact on the health service’s ability to fully develop and deliver virtual wards.
Before considering a virtual ward programme, there are several things to take into account.
Effective communication is essential to virtual wards. Trusts should ensure that they have secure and user-friendly communication tools in place in order to interact with patients and clinicians. Video consultations, secure messaging, and chatbots can help bridge the gap between patients and healthcare professionals.
Foster collaboration among healthcare professionals as well. Virtual wards can bring together many people involved in a patient’s care to provide holistic treatment.
Virtual wards generate a wealth of patient data. To make the most of this information, programme operators should invest in suitable data integration and analytics tools. These can be used to identify trends, predict patient needs, and personalise treatment plans, and therefore improve patient outcomes and save money.
However, it is also important that this data is kept secure. Ensure that robust cybersecurity measures are in place to protect patient data, adhere to relevant data protection regulations, and maintain patient trust.
Empowering patients with knowledge is essential in virtual wards. Providers should offer easily accessible educational resources, so patients know what options are available to them and can make informed decisions.
It is important to regularly gather feedback from both patients and clinicians to identify areas for improvement. Virtual wards should be agile and responsive and adapt to changing healthcare needs and technology advancements.
It is clear that virtual wards offer several benefits for both patients and the health service as a whole. However, it is important that proper resources, staffing and planning is in place before embarking on a virtual ward project. NHS England has lots of resources and guidance available online.