The NHS plans to treat up to 25,000 hospital patients at home in “virtual wards” to help clear the backlog caused by the pandemic, the “living with Covid” plan has revealed.
Patients will be offered acute clinical care at home, including remote monitoring and treatment, as an alternative to hospital stays.
Consultants or GPs will review patients daily via digital platforms and phone calls. In some cases, patients will be provided with a wearable device to continuously monitor and report their vital signs.
The NHS has set a national target of 40 to 50 virtual beds per 100,000 population, which equates to about 25,000 beds across England, according to the “living with Covid” plan published this week.
More than 53 virtual wards are already in use providing 2,500 beds.
The document said: “The use of ‘virtual wards’ and ‘hospital at home’ models of care have ensured that patients can be safely cared for in their own homes and that additional bed capacity can be freed up in hospitals.”
The “virtual” beds will not only be for Covid patients, but also for those with respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and those living with frailty.
Up to £200 million will be available over the next year and £250 million in 2023-24 to support the creation of the wards over the next two years, according to NHS England operational planning guidance.
“Given the significant pressure on acute beds, we must now aim for their full implementation as rapidly as possible,” it added.
“We are therefore asking systems to develop detailed plans to maximise the rollout of virtual wards to deliver care for patients who would otherwise have to be treated in hospital, by enabling earlier supported discharge and providing alternatives to admission.”
Partnerships with the private sector should also be considered “where this will help grow capacity”, it continued.
The plan came after record numbers of patients have been stuck in hospital when they were fit to be discharged. In January, patients were put in £300-per-night hotels amid record levels of bed-blocking, with more than 17,000 patients enduring stays of at least three weeks in hospital.
Commenting on the initial rollout of virtual wards, Dr Tim Cooksley, the president of the Society for Acute Medicine, warned a “hasty” rollout could risk patient safety.
He said: “Virtual wards do have the potential to be a model of the future. However, it is essential they are appropriately planned, resourced and staffed so they simply cannot be seen as a short-term mitigation measure which can be hastily rolled out mid-pandemic.
“Incorrect implementation could risk patient safety and significantly impact clinician and patient confidence.”