An NHS England-commissioned study has found that patients and staff have had positive experiences with virtual wards. The model has been described as a “safe, effective alternative to inpatient care” and signals a step forward for digital transformation in healthcare.
Virtual wards are initiatives designed to deliver effective care for patients in their homes rather than in physical hospitals. In such environments, individuals can be treated using remote monitoring apps and a variety of other technology platforms and medical devices, though there is still some element of face-to-face care from multi-disciplinary teams within the community.
The NHS England-commissioned study evaluated the performance of a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) virtual ward managed by the South and West Hertfordshire Health and Care Partnership. The investigation looked at seven areas of interest, including usage patterns for virtual wards, typical patient characteristics, and the potentiality of virtual wards to reduce lengths of stay and readmissions in secondary care. Patients were admitted to the virtual ward upon discharge from an inpatient bed, monitored continuously using technology, and had regular contact with a multidisciplinary team.
The study concluded that, overall, the model improved outcomes, positively impacted patients across “almost all measures” and delivered cost efficiencies compared to more “traditional” care pathways. NHS England added that the evaluation demonstrated that the use of virtual wards led to a reduction in both in-patient lengths of stay and the number of repeat readmission events. Moreover, patients who were at “risk of deterioration” were also more likely to be identified in a timely manner and escalated appropriately compared to those discharged without virtual ward support.
Virtual ward model viewed approvingly by patients and staff
Feedback from patients and staff about virtual wards was equally positive. Many in the former category reported that they felt “well-prepared” for their transition into the new framework and safely cared for within the community. Staff, meanwhile, praised the model and also gave clear recommendations for its improvement, feeding back on the “future development of the technology pathway to support virtual consultations routinely,” according to NHS England.
In terms of cost, virtual wards also demonstrated a positive cost-benefit ratio, which was based on the initial set-up costs and recurring resources required to sustain it. The lower end of the scale saw a £1.12:1 benefit-to-cost ratio, with an upper scenario ratio of £1.45:1.
This study will come as good news for NHS England. In March, the health service announced plans to create 3,000 virtual ward beds to accommodate the predicted surge in patient numbers over the winter period — news that came when 19 out of 20 hospital beds were occupied, with 14,000 taken by someone who was clinically ready to leave hospital but couldn’t be discharged.