The NHS is being encouraged to treat patients in virtual wards in their homes with regular visits from health staff to relieve the pressure on hospitals and reduce long term inpatient stays.
It is envisaged that the service will create thousands of virtual beds in people’s homes which would combat overcrowded wards and bed shortages. It is argued that this will allow hospitals to better deal with emergencies and save hospitals money as virtual wards are cheaper to run than the typical £250-a-night cost to the NHS of an overnight stay.
Virtual wards are implemented when a doctor agrees that the patient does not need to be kept in hospital. Patients agree to treatment in a virtual ward, have a few hours of treatment in hospital and then are discharged home where they receive up to three visits a day from a nurse to change a dressing or provide other treatments. They may also be seen several times a week by a physiotherapist who helps them with their mobility.
A few hospitals have already started to treat some patients in this way. Virtual wards are typically used for patients who have undergone surgery such as hip or knee replacement. Patients have the option of returning home or staying in care so most chose to return home especially elderly patients who would otherwise be stuck in a hospital bed.
University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust which has already implemented virtual wards reported that only 2% of the patients using virtual wards end up back in hospital which compares favorably with the average 7% of patients. Patient satisfaction was also noted to be high.
Other hospitals are considering implementing additional services such as video consultations as well as the virtual ward.
NHS England is very supportive of virtual wards which are heralded as an innovative way to embrace change to meet the growing challenges faced by the NHS.
Our view is that so long as the risks are monitored and managed appropriately, this could be an effective way forward for the NHS.