To ensure virtual wards succeed, they shouldn’t be seen as another new service but should be viewed as part of the existing ecosystem – not just in acute trusts, but across the whole ICB, writes Jardine Barrington-Cook
Here’s a harsh truth: virtual wards in their current form are not working as well as we all hoped. Figures show that we’re meeting the NHS bed targets but utilisation levels are still low and are not successfully alleviating the pressure on hospitals.
Barriers to success
There are many issues to address here, one of which is the way virtual wards are set up and supported. We see a lot of virtual ward solutions chosen and set up separately from the existing ecosystem within trusts and the wider integrated care system. This not only means more systems and processes for staff to learn, but it also means that data is not integrated into patient records.
The knock-on effect from this is that readily available information that could help better inform clinical decision-making isn’t then shared between stakeholders. Hospital Times wrote last year about how virtual wards were failing patients, and that integration is near non-existent. Information is stuck in silos; isolated elements that could be merged to form a more rounded picture of patient care.
Trusts and integrated care boards are also hampered by the current funding system. Small bursts of funding promote smaller ad-hoc projects; achieving useful immediate accomplishments, but not the cultural shift needed to overhaul the existing approach to ward admission and discharge to bring them into the larger integrated care picture. The worry is that as the Service Development Fund ends, trusts won’t have enough capital to make this shift to fully integrated care, and systems will be stuck in limbo.
We should be looking at how to create smoother, clearer workflows between acute, community, and social care to support someone at home. This means deploying interoperable software solutions
There is also the issue of staffing levels. The NHS Confederation recently discussed the “innovative” virtual ward model and how it’s being “severely hampered” by a lack of clinical staff.
Virtual wards as ecosystem players
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. We believe that a different approach can make virtual wards successful. Virtual wards can’t be seen as another new service; they have to be viewed as part of the existing ecosystem – not just in acute trusts, but across the whole ICB. Once we bring community health and social care into the discussion, it can be much more effective.
Umesh Gadhvi at North East London Foundation Trust believes it’s all about workflows. Rather than putting in a short-term tactical solution, we should be looking at how to create smoother, clearer workflows between acute, community, and social care to support someone at home.
This means deploying interoperable software solutions that allow those providing care to use systems they are familiar with while enabling them to share information to support virtual ward workflows. With these measures in place, integration can provide the cooperation needed to make virtual wards a success.
Using systems that staff recognise and understand, and integrating them so information is available when needed, also reduces the burden on those providing care.
We’re working with North East London ICS to bring this to life and are excited to see how it can revolutionise how virtual wards are run and how it will benefit both the care staff and the individuals receiving care.