Virtual wards: keeping patients safe at home

Imagine a world where patients could receive the same standard of care from the comfort of their home, rather than being in hospital.

With advances in digital health this dream is fast becoming a reality for patients and clinicians across the country. Smartphone apps, wearable devices, and platforms specifically designed to deliver remote care are transforming how we think about care.

The latest iteration of digital health comes in the form of virtual wards. The word ‘virtual’ can often have a polarising effect, but virtual wards don’t serve to eradicate interaction; instead, they seek to augment patient-clinician interaction, rather than act as a direct substitute for it.

For example, virtual wards provide a vital lifeline for people with frailty or acute respiratory infections. Everything from face-to-face consultations to monitoring a patient’s pulse can now be done in a virtual ward, which helps to free up bed capacity and relieve the strain on already stretched NHS resources.

Caring for patients at home

The model for tech-enabled virtual wards was first pioneered during the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing patients to leave hospital early or avoid admission altogether. Although this innovative approach was a direct response to the unique circumstances of the pandemic, NHS organisations recognised the merits of remote monitoring and started to use it to support people at home with other health conditions.

The ultimate aim was to prevent unnecessary hospital admissions, assist with early discharge, and ease the pressure on NHS staff, by providing specialist round-the-clock care.

Here’s what a typical patient journey in a virtual ward might look like:

  • Phase 1 – Assessment: the patient is not ill enough to require a hospital bed and can be assessed and referred to a virtual ward.
  • Phase 2 – Enrolment: the patient is enrolled onto the virtual ward with the setup and provision of remote monitoring devices.
  • Phase 3 – Monitoring: the patient is monitored via a combination of remote devices, self-monitoring and submission, surveys, phone/video calls, and face-to-face visits.
  • Phase 4 – Escalation: when the assessment data breaches a threshold and clinical intervention is required e.g. sending an ambulance.
  • Phase 5 – Discharge: after an average of 1-2 weeks monitoring, the patient is discharged from the virtual ward.

Interoperability and virtual wards go hand in hand

People can’t be treated at home if data can’t be sent and received. If data isn’t accessible by who needs it when they need it, the true value that tech-enablement offers cannot be realised.

To effectively monitor a patient’s condition, relevant confidential patient information needs to be used and shared by hospitals, community teams, care homes and GPs. Data such as a patient’s oxygen levels, pulse, respiratory rate, blood pressure and temperature will all serve as indicators as to whether or not a patient is responding positively to treatment.

This is why interoperability is essential to the roll-out and successful adoption of virtual wards. It empowers different IT systems, devices and applications to exchange, access, integrate and use data in a coordinated way in real-time.

Central to the vision of ‘Smart Hospitals’ is enabling patient records to be shared between systems to allow for faster, more specialised treatment. However, integration and interoperability has always been something that healthcare organisations have struggled with in the past.

There is no one centralised system where staff responsible for administering care can access everything to do with a patient’s health records. Interoperability is the method that will allow the accurate accessing of data from different sources.

The government estimates that it could take as long as three to four years to ease the backlog of elective procedures and other routine treatments caused by the pandemic. Virtual wards are an effective mechanism to help drastically reduce this timeline, enabling NHS organisations to deal with a larger number of patients without experiencing a drop in care standards.

Are you ready?

The introduction of any new technology in the healthcare sector will bring about its own set of unique challenges – and virtual wards are no different, especially where data sharing is concerned.

The digital platform chosen to support a virtual ward is dependent on two things:

  1. Local need
  2. Local system digital maturity and strategy

To support these efforts, the NHS introduced a set of Digital Technology Assessment Criteria (DTAC) that any digital platform is expected to meet. This defined criteria gives staff and patients the confidence that the digital health tools they use meet NHS requirements in clinical safety, data protection, technical security, as well as usability and accessibility standards.

While virtual wards represent a golden opportunity to increase capacity, the challenges shouldn’t be underestimated.

To determine whether your organisation is ready to open a virtual ward, you first need to consider the technology solutions and systems already in place in your ICS. How will the introduction of a virtual ward affect your overall digital strategy? Will it be an enabler for future scalability? These are important questions to consider before committing.

Once your clinical and business needs have been determined, you need to outline a local requirement specification for the use of the technology and how it will work in practice. A requirement specification of technology will assess things like accessibility standards, NHS requirements, staff training needs, and data governance, amongst many other things.

Virtual wards are a win-win, for patients and staff

Demand for healthcare services is continuing to grow as innovations in technology and medicine both extend the average person’s lifespan. The longer people live, the more health problems they’re likely to encounter.

By using virtual wards, hospitals and clinics can help relieve pressure on the NHS, reducing the rate of occupied beds for those with greater need, whilst allowing patients with less severe cases to be seen sooner.

Here are some of the benefits patients and clinicians can expect to see from the widespread adoption of virtual wards:

Reduced congestion in hospitals and other care settings 

By preventing avoidable admissions into hospitals and enabling the early discharge of patients in less serious cases, hospitals and other care settings can better manage increased demand for healthcare provision, allowing them to focus on critical cases.

Cost and time effective 

A reduction in the average length of hospital stays and readmission rates mean that care settings can work more efficiently, reallocate resources, and generate considerable savings per patient.

Giving patients more control over their health

With waiting times for routine GP appointments and elective procedures at an all-time high, any opportunity to conveniently manage their own treatment will be welcomed by patients.

Informed decision making

Through the use of wearable devices, care settings can receive a round-the-clock picture of a patient’s health without having to manually do this themselves, with measures in place to trigger an alert if predetermined thresholds are passed.

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