NHS virtual wards 'can be trailblazers in global push for universal healthcare'

Innovation can cut overall health spending by improving efficiency and outcomes, says WEF

Shortages in UK emergency services have reached a critical level this winter. EPA
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Pioneering adoption of healthcare initiatives, such as digital wards in the UK, has a role in promoting universal medical care, according to the findings of a World Economic Forum (WEF) report.

UK Health Secretary Steve Barclay has declared that solutions for the crisis of demand facing the British NHS need to be introduced in weeks.

These include the establishment of “virtual wards” that use technology to monitor and give remote care to patients at home.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called for a focus on digital to help overhaul the NHS as it is beset by a winter flu pandemic, swelling waiting lists for operations and strikes over pay.

“What we’ve been talking to people about is trying to figure out how can we get people treated exactly where they need to be,” he said on Monday.

“It’s the type of model that we just need to do more of, because it is so powerful. Who doesn’t prefer to be at home if they can be at home?”

The Global Health and Healthcare Strategic Outlook covers the role of digital technology in strengthening access to healthcare. The WEF report looks at the potential for technology-driven change up to 2035. It singles out the UK's efforts to transform its free-to-use state healthcare system.

“Innovation has the potential to reduce overall healthcare spending by improving efficiency and outcomes,” said the report issued this week. “There is increasing recognition that treating patients in lower-acuity settings, such as the home, is less costly.

“Total home health expenditure growth is expected to outpace total healthcare expenditure growth in nearly all other healthcare segments, with increasing focus on home diagnostics, home administered drug delivery systems and patient monitoring devices.”

Globally the trend towards technology offering more universal care was at the forefront of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Digital investments nearly doubled to $57 billion in 2021, particularly in telehealth and mental health,” the report estimated, with more research showing the potential for remote interactions.

“For example, National Health Service (NHS) England says one in four general practitioner appointments are potentially avoidable, and telemedicine is important for relieving the burden on the health system,” it said.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to the media as he urged health leaders at an emergency meeting to take "bold and radical" action to alleviate the winter crisis in the NHS.

The NHS website says virtual ward pilot schemes are about providing rapid care to people in their own homes rather than going to hospital and supporting those who are frail.

“In a virtual ward, support can include remote monitoring using apps, technology platforms, wearables and medical devices such as pulse oximeters,” it states. “Support may also involve face-to-face care from multi-disciplinary teams based in the community.”

The WEF report also expands on how the approach delivers care and says its adoption will be promoted by more information on how effective remote treatment can be for patients.

Former health secretary Sajid Javid looks at a simulated patient at Great Ormond Street Hospital while announcing a new digital health plan in June

“More robust evidence linking investment in health technologies to contained costs and improved outcomes will facilitate recognition and uptake of innovation by public bodies,” it states.

As part of a package of reforms, it says the set-up could lead to more efficient healthcare spending.

“Better prevention, monitoring and personalised recommendations leveraging digital and AI-powered techniques can have significant impact on overall spend,” another section says.

“Beyond healthcare savings, healthcare innovation supports overall economic output. A model built to project ageing populations demonstrates future reductions in output of 17 per cent by 2056 and 39 per cent by 2096 relative to an economy with constant population distribution.

“Therefore, innovators need to focus not only on their projected revenues but the extent to which their products and services will ultimately lead to cost savings, improved efficiencies and true value add to existing treatment paradigms.”

Updated: January 10, 2023, 5:36 PM