In January 2023, NHS England’s Delivery plan for recovering urgent and emergency services committed the health service to ease the growing pressure on hospitals by scaling up the use of ‘virtual wards’. Also known as ‘hospital at home’, virtual wards allow people to receive treatment and care where they live, rather than as a hospital inpatient, while still being in regular contact with health professionals.
This article by The Health Foundation looks at how NHS staff and the UK public feel about the use of virtual wards, based on the results of a survey of 7,100 members of the public and 1,251 NHS staff members. The survey aimed to assess how supportive these groups are of virtual wards and what they think is important for making sure they work well.
- The UK public is, overall, supportive of virtual wards (by 45% to 36%). But this support is finely balanced – with a further 19% unsure whether they are supportive or not. So there is further to go in raising awareness and in understanding and addressing the public’s concerns as this model of care is developed.
- Support for virtual wards is higher among disabled people and those with a carer – groups that typically have greater health needs and who might therefore be expected to be more intensive users of virtual wards.
- Those in socioeconomic groups D and E are on balance unsupportive of virtual wards, so it will be important to understand and address needs and concerns here. Notably, survey respondents in these socioeconomic groups who said that they would not want to be treated through a virtual ward were also more likely to say that their home would not be suitable for a virtual ward compared with those in other socioeconomic groups.
- Nearly three-quarters of the UK public (71%) are open to being treated through a virtual ward under the right circumstances, while 27% said they would not be – suggesting that, if implemented well, virtual wards should be acceptable to a large majority of service users.
- Interestingly, a higher proportion of the public, 78%, told us that they would be happy ‘to monitor their own health at home using technologies, instead of in a hospital’ – describing a scenario often seen as part of a broader virtual ward service, but avoiding the term ‘virtual ward’ – with only 13% saying they would not. This raises the question of whether using different terminology or providing more explanation could help alleviate concerns and build wider support.
- NHS staff in our survey were, on balance, clearly supportive of virtual wards (by 63% to 31%). When asked what will matter for making sure virtual wards work well, their top two factors were the ability to admit people to hospital quickly if their condition changes, and the ability for people to talk to a health professional if they need help.