NHS England’s plans to rapidly expand virtual wards are being ‘hastily rolled out’ and could put patients at risk while taking up significant staffing capacity, leading clinicians have warned.
The Society for Acute Medicine and the Royal College of Physicians are among those who have raised concerns to HSJ about the huge increase in the use of the virtual wards model, under which patients are discharged home and given oximeters that fit on their finger so they can be remotely monitored by clinical staff.
The concerns follow NHSE ordering trusts to ensure a minimum of 15% of hospital covid patients were being treated in virtual wards, in plans to help ease pressures on hospital wards announced just before Christmas.
At the time NHSE announced the plans there were around 7,000 covid inpatients in English NHS hospitals, meaning around 1,000 patients should be in virtual wards. But the covid inpatient figure had more than doubled to nearly 16,000 by 5 January.
The project is hugely significant because NHSE and trust chiefs want to use virtual wards much more widely – including for non-covid patients – and believe they represent a potentially game-changing option when it comes to alleviating pressure on hospitals and speeding up discharges.
Many of the clinicians who spoke to HSJ were supportive of the principle of virtual wards but had serious concerns about the speed and timing of the rollout. They said there was a lack of evidence the approach was safe.
Society for Acute Medicine president Tim Cooksley said virtual wards had potential for the future but that they “simply cannot be seen as a short-term mitigation measure which can be hastily rolled out mid-pandemic”.
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Source: HSJ, 7 January 2022