NHS to increase use of 'virtual wards'

​The NHS is set to increase virtual ward use, as new analysis shows that 9,000 hospital admissions have been avoided in the South East in the past year as a result of the initiative.

NHS hospitals are being encouraged to refer more patients directly to virtual wards where they can receive treatment from the comfort of their own home, while freeing up hospital beds for the sickest patients.

More people suffering from respiratory conditions or heart failure are set be treated through an intravenous drip or a nebuliser from home, instead of needing to be cared for in hospital, while more people living with frailty are also set to benefit from the virtual ward programme.

It comes as the largest evaluation of the effectiveness and benefits of virtual wards found one non-elective hospital admission could be avoided for every 2.5 virtual ward admissions.

It found that if the South East virtual ward model is scaled up across England, 178,000 admissions could be avoided over the next two years according to NHS analysis.

The enhancement of the virtual ward programme forms part of an NHS England letter to every local hospital and health system in the country, setting out evidence-based actions to continue to boost urgent and emergency care performance in the year ahead.

For the first time ever, funding incentives will include 12-hour A&E waits, with hospitals asked to focus on ensuring that patients don’t wait beyond this timeframe.

National guidance, backed by £150 million, will focus on helping patients to avoid an A&E admission in the first place, with patients admitted to virtual wards straight from home and measures to support regular A&E attenders who don’t need urgent care to get the help they need.

The updated framework also sets out how local areas can allow direct referrals by GPs and 999 to same day emergency care, which sees patients receive timely diagnosis, care and treatment while avoiding an overnight stay.

NHS national director for urgent and emergency care, Sarah-Jane Marsh, said: “Thanks to the hard work of NHS staff, last year saw considerable progress in the recovery of urgent and emergency care services with the first improvement in A&E performance outside of the pandemic in nine years, and Category 2 ambulance response times 17 minutes faster than the year before, all despite a record year of demand for A&E and ambulance call-outs.

“However, it is clear there is still much further to go and with the rollout of ambitious new measures like more direct referrals to same day emergency care, more ‘step-up’ virtual wards, and targeted support for patients who regularly attend A&E, we are confident this plan can deliver further improvements for patients and continue to bring down the longest waits for care.”

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