NHS England and Improvement (NHSEI) has stated an ambition to increase the capacity of virtual wards to 40-50 ‘beds’ per 100,000 population, equivalent to up to 24,000 in all, by the end of next year.
It has outlined the plan in a recently published guidance document on the subject for the leads of integrated care systems (ICSs), asking all of them to extend or introduce the supporting infrastructure for virtual wards, which make use of technology for patients to be monitored and treated at home rather than in hospitals.
It has also said that funding of £450 million will be made available to support the move until the end of the 2023-24 financial year.
The commitment reflects one of the priorities in operational planning guidance published in December 2021.
The new document says, as a minimum, NHSEI expects each ICS to implement virtual ward models for the patient pathways for acute respiratory infection and frailty, and that this can be expanded to other pathways depending on the starting point and maturity of services.
It adds that virtual ward services should be developed across systems rather than focused individual organisations, and can involve partnerships between secondary, community, primary, mental health and social care.
Procurement and set-up
NHSEI has also published guidance through FutureNHS on choosing and procuring the technology to enable virtual wards – including key questions on what a digital platform is required to do and the supporting equipment – and a brief on setting them up.
Core datasets should cover the capacity of the wards, flows of patients in and out, the length of stay and understandings of patient demographics and clinical pathways and services.
“Virtual ward services will only be successful if they combine all the above in creating an integrated care model,” the document says. “Hence it will be the first test of ICSs, as they are established, to deliver a new multi-agency approach to supporting people to be cared for in their own homes or usual place of residence.
“In order to achieve scale, systems will need to think about virtual wards on a whole system basis and whether they are best delivered on a whole integrated care board footprint or in partnerships with other ICBs.”