New research finds recruitment crisis threatens to undermine virtual ward revolution
Nearly half of NHS Trusts need to recruit new roles amid sector-wide staffing crisis to enable the effective operation of Virtual Wards.
Freedom of Information Act data obtained by digital health technology provider, Spirit Health, has revealed the scale of the recruitment crisis that threatens to undermine the delivery of NHS England’s virtual ward ambition.
Spirit Health collected data from 107 NHS Trusts across England and found that 40 per cent need to recruit additional staff to support the delivery of virtual wards. The NHS is increasingly pivoting to virtual wards, which are intended to allow people to receive care outside of hospital settings, whether at home or in domiciliary care facilities. The Covid-19 pandemic saw the NHS establish COVID Virtual Wards, and their success has prompted a renewed ambition for their widespread use outside of treating Covid-19.
The acceleration of digital expansion plans is in response to NHS England’s recent mandate for all NHS Trusts to offer 40 to 50 virtual beds per 100,000 population. This ‘comprehensive development of virtual wards’ comes at a time when hospital waiting lists are exceeding 6.6 million, with the Health and Social Care secretary demanding radical action to avoid a winter crisis.
Of Trusts needing to recruit, a third (32.6 per cent) anticipate making appointments across up to three roles, while some Trusts have stated that they expect to recruit new staff in as many as seven different roles before launching a virtual ward.
Of the 31 Trusts that subsequently provided a breakdown of the roles they intend to hire, 84 per cent anticipate hiring Secondary Care Practitioners (such as consultants, therapists, advanced clinical practitioners, and nurses), with a further 29 per cent seeking primary care practitioners (such as GPs and pharmacists). The projected influx of specialised staff underscores the scale of this initiative – and the recruitment challenge that threatens to undermine the successful rollout of virtual wards.
The impact of workforce challenges on the expansion of virtual wards has been felt directly by Spirit Health’s clinical monitoring team. In recent months, its in-house team has experienced an uplift in the number of requests for flexible clinical support to Trusts to deliver digital programmes and help them onboard staff. This latest research comes after a recent report by the Health and Social Care Select Committee which suggested more than 475,000 NHS staff will be needed by early 2030 to deliver vital care, throwing into question how NHS Trusts plan to recruit and retain key staff.1
Healthcare authorities hope that the deployment of virtual wards will significantly reduce these pressures by combatting staff shortages and minimising lengthy discharge times. Initial pilots of the programme have offered promising results already: virtual wards have been proven to deliver a 40.3 per cent reduction in the average length of hospital stay and a 50 per cent reduction in re-admission rates.23 Likewise, Spirit Health’s CliniTouch Vie platform has seen a 67.5 per cent reduction in unscheduled emergency admissions.4
The NHS’s adoption of digital healthcare services is also likely to be motivated by the economic benefits of these proven efficiencies. Virtual wards are expected to save the NHS up to £4,000 per patient stay, whilst CliniTouch Vie alone is predicted to save the health service more than £500,000, by building on the successful virtual ward pilot operation it ran to support Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust.5
These significant savings will go a long way in supporting the NHS workforce of the future – with funding being freed up to be reinvested in both the upskilling of the current workforce and enlistment of new staff to further ease the current strains on the health system.
Speaking about the recruitment crisis that is threatening the implementation of virtual wards, Dr Noel O’Kelly, Clinical Director at Spirit Health, said: “Virtual Wards offer a lifeline to enable the continued delivery of first-rate care and be a strong addition to face-to-face services, which have struggled to keep pace with the current workforce challenges and lengthy patient waiting lists across the health sector.
NHS staffing shortages threaten to undermine the exciting opportunity that virtual wards bring: digital healthcare technology cannot support patients without the necessary specialists to operate it. These findings echo the frustrations that we hear from our partner trusts, who are reporting that workforce challenges are hindering efforts to scale this technology achieve its full potential. We must urgently demonstrate the capacity of this technology to ease pressures for the stretched workforce, and thus attract fresh talent to support its delivery.”
2 Swift, J. et al, 2022. An evaluation of a virtual COVID-19 ward to accelerate the supported discharge of patients from an acute hospital setting. British Journal of Healthcare Management, 28(1), pp.7-15.
3 NHSX. 2022. Remote monitoring for patients with chronic conditions in the Midlands [online] Available at: <https://www.nhsx.nhs.uk/covid-19-response/technology-nhs/remote-monitoring-for-patients-with-chronic-conditions-in-the-midlands/> [Accessed 25 January 2022]
4 Ghosh S, O’Kelly N, Roberts EJ et al. Combined interventions for COPD admissions within an urban setting. BJHCM: 2016;3:122–131.
5 A successful pilot of virtual wards for COPD, Heart Failure, and Covid-19 across LPT produced savings of £529,719 for the health system.