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'Virtual' Care Credited with Helping to Keep Hospital Beds Available

NHS England says that it has treated more than 100,000 patients in NHS 'virtual wards' in the past year.

'Virtual wards' are ones where patients remain at home and receive 'hospital-level care' at home, according to NHS England. People on virtual wards are treated by a "multi-skilled team" who can provide "a range of tests and treatments, including blood tests, prescribing medication, or administering fluids through an intravenous drip".

The patients are reviewed daily by a clinical team that may involve a home visit or an online check.

The health service said that it now has more than 340 virtual ward programmes across England, with 58 new wards that opened in January, leading to a total of 7653 'virtual beds'. This has led to the treatment of more than 16,000 patients in January, the health agency said.

This 'hospital at home' model has helped reduce actual hospital admissions, they said. Frimley Health Foundation Trust, servicing Hampshire, Surrey, and Berkshire, runs a virtual service that they estimated allowed 83% of patients to avoid hospital admission. They treated 774 patients virtually between July 2022 and January 2023.

The programme is part of the NHS urgent and emergency care recovery plan, launched at the end of January, with the goal of treating up to 50,000 patients a month. The plan also aimed to reduce waiting times, expand community falls and fragility services and urgent community response teams, as well as creating more physical beds in hospital.

'Game-Changer': NHS Medical Director

NHS National Medical Director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, said: "The advantages of virtual wards for both staff and patients have been a real game-changer for the way hospital care is delivered and so it is a huge achievement that more than 100,000 patients have been able to benefit in the last year alone, with the number of beds up by nearly two thirds in less than a year.

"With up to a fifth of emergency hospital admissions estimated to be avoided through better supporting vulnerable patients at home and in the community, these world leading programmes are making a real difference not just to the people they directly benefit but also in reducing pressure on wider services."

Nurse Nisha Jose, clinical team leader at Mersey Care's Clinical Telehealth Hub, which supports about 2000 patients per day, said: "People yearn for normality and the comfort of home, yet when they get home, they may become worried.

"With our virtual ward programme, we can do everything that would happen on a hospital ward. We take observations every 6 hours to identify any issues and we can even carry out ECGs at the patient’s home. It has truly transformed the way we deliver care."

Dr Sayanthan Ganesaratnam, a GP in Merton, commented:As a GP, I work collaboratively with the hospital at home team to support patients who are at risk of being admitted to hospital and need step-up care.

"This is beneficial to patients as, rather than going into hospital for potentially lengthy stays, they can stay at home, receive excellent care and be monitored closely in familiar surroundings.

"And should a patient start to feel unwell, there are systems in place to quickly alert a clinician, reducing the possibility of an emergency re-admission."