UK 'virtual wards' plan to save NHS from care crisis

Technology could be 'significant in reducing pressure on bed occupancy in hospitals'

UK Heath Secretary Steve Barclay at Watford General Hospital on January 6. PA
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"Virtual wards" are being promoted by the British government as a key technological solution to helping the National Health Service out of a care crisis.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said online wards with patients being “treated at home with technology and wrap-around care” would help to prepare the UK’s National Health Service for the summer and winter.

Mr Barclay announced the plans during a House of Commons speech after a weekend emergency meeting at Downing Street looking for answers to the care crisis that has gripped the UK this winter.

Doctors and health leaders have warned that the NHS is in crisis with patients being treated in cupboards, hospitals running out of oxygen canisters, and growing waiting times.

Virtual wards could be a key way to free up hospital beds, Mr Barclay said.

“Last week at Watford General Hospital I saw how patients who had been in hospitals were treated at home through a combination of technology and wrap-around care, where patients released sooner were often much happier knowing they were receiving clinical supervision and always have the safety of being able to quickly return to hospital should their condition deteriorate," he said.

“There is scope to expand this to many more conditions and many more hospitals in the months ahead.

“That innovation is still at an early stage of development but has the potential to be significant in reducing pressure on bed occupancy in hospitals.”

Mr Barclay said the emergency recovery plan for the NHS was designed to tackle three areas: the immediate crisis; preparing for next winter; and longer-term prevention of ill health to protect the system.

“First, steps to support the system now given the immediate pressures we face this winter,” he said.

“Second, steps to support a whole of system response this year to give better resilience during the summer and autumn, because as we saw with the heatwave this summer and the levels of Covid, pressure is now sustained throughout the year, not just as in the past to an autumn and winter period.

“Third, our work alongside these two areas on prevention, to maximise the step change potential of proven technology such as virtual wards and the wider adoption of innovations such as operational control centres and machine-reading software to treat more conditions in the community away from reaching emergency departments in the first place.”

To tackle the immediate problems, the government plans to book 2,500 extra care home beds to ease pressure on available NHS beds.

The NHS is being given funds to urgently upgrade hospital capacity in and around emergency departments.

Mr Barclay also said frontline staff would not have to take quality control inspections over the coming weeks.

For the longer-term recovery of the NHS, he referred to new schemes such as an arrangement with pharmaceutical company BioNTech aimed at providing access to cancer vaccines.

Updated: January 09, 2023, 8:05 PM