Virtual wards: A new way to care

Sophie Evans, clinical consultant for health communications specialist Ascom UK, explores how virtual wards are changing care pathways and transforming hospitals.

December 23, 2022

Virtual wards are a big part of the NHS’ future. By the end of 2023, NHS England hopes to increase capacity through virtual wards by providing the equivalent of 24,000 beds.

Virtual wards that can treat patients with chronic conditions within the community will enable the NHS to deliver higher levels of proactive and preventative care. But there is more to virtual wards than monitoring patients in their own homes.

In fact, how virtual wards can manage patients admitted to hospital – or due to be – is equally as transformational.

The pandemic has further exacerbated some of the NHS’ biggest challenges – declining numbers of NHS frontline staff combined with record high admissions. Put simply, the NHS is quickly running out of staff and space where patients can be cared for.  

Virtual wards can’t replace NHS teams, but they do have the potential to more effectively and efficiently manage how, when and where patients are treated within hospitals.

Take, for example, the role of critical care outreach teams. Primarily these teams are responsible for ensuring critically ill patients, or those at risk of becoming so, receive appropriate and timely treatment in the most suitable location within the hospital.

Virtual wards could provide invaluable insight to this team. Drawing together data from connected medical devices, critical care outreach teams will be able to respond quickly to the most subtle of changes in the patient’s health. If a patient shows signs of deterioration, the team can act swiftly to re-admit them to an intensive care unit, or step-up monitoring. And if the data and clinical observations point towards improvement in the patient’s condition, plans can be put in place to transfer to a more suitable ward and eventually discharge them.

The data being harnessed through virtual wards can improve care pathways while managing the flow of patients around a hospital more efficiently.

It’s an evolution that’s only set to continue, as the NHS scales up leveraging connected devices such as remote monitoring technologies, digital workflows, and surgical robotics to improve patient outcomes and staff productivity.

Cancellation of elective surgery is a challenge NHS England is already trying to solve with the use of technology – but virtual wards could enhance this further.
Sophie Evans
Clinical Consultant, Ascom UK

Cancelling a planned operation at the eleventh hour due to a patient being unfit for surgery – for example they have high blood pressure – is detrimental to the patient and costs the NHS valuable theatre time. But having virtual wards to monitor pre-operative patients could help prevent this.

According to NHS England a third of on-the-day surgery cancellations happen because the patient is not clinically ready for treatment.

Through remote monitoring, near-real-time health data can be tracked, allowing a decision to be made if the patient is still suitable for surgery and if not, whether someone else on the waiting list can take their surgery slot. This is something extremely difficult to achieve through the current, traditional pre-admission process.

Cancellation of elective surgery is a challenge NHS England is already trying to solve with the use of technology – but virtual wards could enhance this further.

In the not-so-distant future it’s very likely that a physical hospital will become a place where patients only visit for acute care. In fact, we’re seeing this evolution now in their design and construction as part of the New Hospitals Programme.

Increasingly, patients will be cared for through virtual wards and remote wearables at home – minimising footfall into hospitals, decreasing cross-infection risk and allowing patients to be monitored within the comfort of their own surroundings.

And for those receiving care within the four walls of a hospital, virtual wards will be able to tap into crucial health data insights to help the NHS provide better patient outcomes.

Back to blog list page