How the NHS is warding off sickness with remote monitoring tech
A Parkinson’s patient’s drastic change in temperature alerted a Kent community health nurse working miles away of a concerning change in their condition.
Without the need to call an ambulance himself, the team travelled to his home to assess him and found that he needed immediate treatment for sepsis.
Spotting sudden accelerations in health conditions is just one of the benefits of virtual ward technology that is transforming healthcare providers such as the UK’s NHS.
According to Frimley Health, 83% of patients avoid hospital admissions with the help of virtual wards – little wonder then, that healthcare providers around the world are embracing this new technology.
Delivering a keynote at the Digital Healthcare Show at London’s Excel last week, Stephanie Somerville, director of community health services transformation and virtual worlds at NHS England – kicked off by emphasising that virtual wards were becoming a worldwide phenomenon.
“The US is aggressively looking at what kind of hospital-level interventions can be done, and in Australia, we’re seeing models of virtual hospitals emerge too,” she said.
“It’s really beginning to gather pace in the UK too where we’re scaling this on a countrywide level,” she noted, although added that it was also a challenge, given all the other pressures the state-owned healthcare provider is under.
In the UK, NHS services have been infamously crowded with long waiting times and a lack of beds in hospitals and patients being treated for preventative conditions that could have been managed with at-home monitoring, Somerville argued
Virtual wards are in some ways physical, in that they are hosted in an office environment where clinical practitioners, therapists, nurses, geriatricians, and GPs work together in monitoring care for patients at home.
“District nurses will say to me that we’ve been doing this for ages,” admitted Somerville, “Yes we have, but it’s really about building on that good work there with tech.”
While monitoring people at home helps relieve waiting rooms, virtual wards also help keep patients, whether they be frail and elderly, or lacking in strength following post operative care, stay rested in the comfort of their homes.
“My geriatrician colleagues will say to me that they see first-hand the kind of deconditioning that happens when frail elderly patients, for example, go to hospital,” explained Somerville.
“We know that we can deliver just as good outcomes for patients in their comfort of their home, with food they want to eat, in their own bed with their pets and their family. That’s really what were here to do,” she added.
A virtual ward works by monitoring patients through a combination of telephone calls, home visits, and, vitally, digital monitoring kits, connected to the internet.
“These kits may include a special device to monitor their heart rates, oxygen levels, skin temperature, blood pressure, and any other devices that the patient may need to monitor their health,” explains Somerville.
“The results of these will go straight through to the nursing team, and each ward has a doctor assigned to them just like a hospital ward.”
Each day, the nurses will discuss patient care with a doctor, which means each patient receives constant care.
As well as the previously mentioned example of the Parkinson’s patient with sepsis, another case involved a patient who had been discharged from hospital after being in there for a month with heart failure.
The patient was monitored via a virtual ward platform where nurses kept an eye on his heartbeat and oxygen levels. If his pulse rate fell, the nurses could simply call and check in before taking a view on what action to take.
Since May 2022, the number of patients that have been treated in virtual wards has doubled, and the NHS plans to start scaling.
As of March 2023, there are more than 340 virtual ward programmes across England, and 58 of those opened in January.
According to Somerville the NHS is starting to treat around 20,000 patients per month via virtual wards – although there has been some friction.
Somerville and her team have found that while reaction to the platform has been positive from fellow colleagues, there’re been a lack of confidence around becoming familiar with the technology.
Plus, it’s not only the teams but also the patients themselves that may be less digitally mature that need the help, too.
To resolve this, Sommerville said that there were moves being made to create more digital champions and nurse educator roles within the healthcare system.
On top of scaling the number of virtual wards, they are also hoping to expand the type of care they provide remotely. For example, one virtual ward is currently trialing a portable x-ray, and another is testing out portable ultrasounds.
So, with different technologies providing different sets of data, for different sets of people in the healthcare industry, too, interoperability is also important.
“We’ve got to make the systems talk to each other at the fundamental level and share data with our clinicians. Otherwise, we’re not getting anywhere,” admitted Somerville.
On top of that cyber security was also “something that some providers are grappling with,” to make sure the vital data is kept private.
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