Digital health

Plans for virtual wards across the UK by Christmas in jeopardy due to staffing concerns

Current staffing level scarcities are giving healthcare leaders cause for concern over the national target to utilise thousands more virtual ward patient beds throughout NHS organisations by this coming Christmas.

The national target for integrated care systems to actively run up to 50 virtual wards per every 100,000 patients by December 2023, is currently bringing cause for concern. The attempt to scale up capacity to above 10,000 beds by Autumn is also at risk.

Remote wards have an operational process similar to that of a real-world hospital ward, whilst ensuring that patients can receive the care they need from the comfort of their own home, enriching the patient experience and maintaining autonomy of the individual.

The critical levers that needed to implement the successful national roll out have been analysed by the NHS Confederation, highlighting that industry leaders are concerned over the lack of a long-term plan from the government, essentially meaning that systems are currently being put in place to fail.

Amidst the concerns over barriers to progression, the past 12 months have seen the NHS successfully managing to treat over 100,000 patients via the virtual wards, delivering over 340 ward programmes across England, the equivalent of 7,500 virtual beds.

The report warns that “while we await both the national workforce plan and the digital, data and technology workforce plan it cannot be underestimated how this steady lack of available workforce over the years continues to affect the feasibility of delivering virtual wards at scale.”

Commenting on the report, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation said:

“It is very concerning to note that vital new models of innovative care like virtual wards, which could go a long way to help in shoring up the health service’s defences and head off another winter crisis this year, are being jeopardised because of a lack of staff to run them. 

“There is now a real and urgent need to address staffing in the NHS and we know that this is having a significant impact on all aspects of care.

“Support from NHS England for virtual wards has been very welcome and there is a need to get them rolled out far and wide to help address winter demand more effectively.

“However, it is also important that those setting them up are allowed more flexibility so that their use is not limited solely to frail patients or those with respiratory illnesses.”

Further recommendations are calling for staffing levels to be “properly planned” whilst providing vital opportunities for clinical staff from acute, social, community and primary care to work in these wards in a permanent and secondment roles, allowing these wards to be seen as a long-term service which can enrich career development for those working within them.

Leaders have also called on both the government and NHS England to establish a larger-scale digital project that would enable the virtual wards to have easier access to the local data requisite to inform local healthcare decisions.

The report also touches on the recommendation that NHS England should operate in a less prescriptive manner towards specific virtual ward pathways, citing that the current focus on respiratory infection and frailty virtual wards is undermining the autonomy of services to focus care on areas other than acute care.

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NHE May/June 2024

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