Are virtual wards sustainable?

October 17, 2023

With the current pressures on the NHS, helping staff to manage the unprecedented demand they are facing is a top priority. One exciting development gaining traction is Virtual Wards (VWs), which could help to maximise resource usage while improving patient experience. Here Amanda Begley, Director of Digital Transformation at the Health Innovation Network, describes how a recent event showcased to her how VWs offer a safe and well received alternative to traditional inpatient care, potentially relieving some of the pressures on our healthcare system.

VWs are a new model of care which is still under design and testing, so the evidence is not yet robust enough to support a traditional business case. In addition, ring-fenced national funding for virtual wards is coming to end, and so ICBs need to decide whether and, if so, how to continue funding them. In this context, the question arises: how do we build a business case and ensure sustainability for VWs?

To answer this question, the Health Innovation Network South London and NHS England London brought together key financial, clinical and operational stakeholders from across the capital along with national representatives to seek a consensus around the benefits of VWs that could best drive business cases. The goal was simple: to reach a consensus on why VWs matter and how that can drive investment decisions.

The event buzzed with energy, and discussions were so engaging that attendees willingly stayed beyond our planned 5:30pm close to keep the discussion going. I was struck by the enthusiasm for doing the right thing for patients, thinking through how we enable people to be cared for in the place of their choosing. The insights from the session will be invaluable in guiding systems deciding where to prioritise investment.

Some key system and financial benefits highlighted at the event were:

  1. Reducing admissions and re-admissions: Implementing VWs can help minimise avoidable non-elective admissions and re-admissions, leading to better patient experience, outcomes and use of resources. This shift also frees up physical beds for unavoidable non-elective and planned elective care.
  2. Decreasing Emergency Department wait times and improving flow: VWs can play a crucial role in reducing ambulance handover times, decreasing ED waiting times, and streamlining the "decision to admit" process. They allow for patients to be discharged from the ED to a VW and earlier discharges from inpatient beds, ensuring smoother patient flow through the hospital.
  3. Making the most of limited resources: VWs have the potential to optimise resources by reducing the cost per patient stay compared to inpatient beds. They also allow for a more efficient use of the workforce, thanks to the ability to safely deliver care at a lower staff-to-bed ratio. This is particularly so for tech-enabled virtual wards.

In a world where demographic changes mean pressure on services is only increasing, the VWs event was about finding innovative solutions, by creating an atmosphere of collaboration, meaningful conversations, and shared purpose. The journey ahead may still be under construction, but the destination promises a healthcare system that's even more patient-focused, sustainable and future-proofed.

Our recent virtual wards event also included reflections on patient experiences of virtual care. Click here to read our summary blog focused on patient experience.

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