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Virtual wards held back by lack of public understanding, research suggests

A lack of understanding of what virtual wards actually are ‘may be holding back’ progress and uptake of the model in the UK, despite evidence of the public being largely supportive of the concept, researchers have suggested.

According to a survey led by The Health Foundation, 45% of the UK public is ‘very‘ or ‘quite‘ supportive of virtual wards, with over a third (36%) saying they were ‘not very‘ or ‘not at all‘ supportive. Some 19% responded that they didn’t know.

However, when asked if they would be happy to monitor their own health at home using technologies, instead of in a hospital – a similar scenario that avoided the term ‘virtual ward’ – support shot up to as many as four in five (78%), compared to just 13% rejecting the idea.

This indicated that a lack of knowledge about virtual wards was ‘stymying support for the policy’, risking slowing the uptake for the model of care, The Health Foundation said.

NHS England is aiming to introduce more than 10,000 virtual ward beds ahead of this winter, including an announcement last month to expand the services to cover children’s care.

Current NHS England guidance is also driving the digitisation of virtual wards, with plans to enhance them through the use of technologies, such as remote monitoring. Similar commitments are also in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Health Foundation’s research also found that:

  • Support for virtual wards varied on how much one knew about how the NHS uses technology, with those who knew a ‘great deal’ (69%) being more on board that those who didn’t (24%)
  • Disabled people (50%), people with a carer (58%) and carers (55%) were more likely to support virtual wards than the population as a whole (45%)
  • Older people were more open to using virtual wards under the ‘right conditions’, with only 21% of those over 65 saying they would not want to use one compared to 36% of 16-24 year olds.

The research also included 1,251 NHS staff. Of these, almost two thirds (63%) were either ‘very‘ or ‘quite‘ supportive of virtual wards, while 31% were ‘not very‘ or ‘not at all‘ supportive. 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.

Director of innovation and improvement at The Health Foundation, Dr Malte Gerhold, said: ‘It is encouraging to see support for virtual wards is higher among those more likely to require healthcare, such as older people, disabled people and those with a carer. As virtual wards are rolled out, the NHS will need to consider the barriers that households can face and make sure they have the right support available.

‘In the face of unprecedented pressures, the NHS won’t be sustainable in future without greater use of new technologies, so ensuring new ways of delivering care have the backing of patients and the public will be critical if they are to become part of business-as-usual. As well as evaluating virtual wards to ensure they are delivering high-quality care in practice, policymakers need to engage more with the public about how to maximise the potential of better tech-enabled care at home.’

A version of this article was originally published by our sister publication Healthcare Leader.