Patients with heart failure: Virtual wards

By Dr Jonathan Shurlock 
Edited by Dr. Ahmed El-Medany

NHS England have published data related to ‘virtual wards’, which since October have been a recommended option for the care of some heart failure patients by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. 8,586 patients were receiving treatment via a virtual ward in December, up from 7,886 in November.

According to The Standard, Professor Sir Stephen Powiss has described the “rapid expansion” of virtual wards as “a real NHS success story”. This view is challenged, however, by senior figures at NHS Providers and the Royal College of Nursing. One example of evidence suggests the use of virtual wards for the care of older people does not demonstrate clear benefit or cost-effectiveness; and that most benefit is seen with hospital at home, rather than a virtual ward environment – an important distinction.

With a need for more conclusive outcome and safety data around virtual wards, heart failure teams should ensure they are central to the process for their complex patients as opposed to being sought out for clinical or operational advice after the fact. It is clear that NHS England and the government are going to emphasise the role of virtual wards moving forwards, with a target of 40-50 virtual beds per 100,000 people. Specialist knowledge and experience will be required to advocate for these patients. In response to these figures, the Department for Health and Social Care referred to an increase in 50,0000 more nurses since 2019, which has been challenged by the Royal College of Nursing, and their long-term workforce plan. We will continue to monitor any publicly available figures, with a particular focus on outcomes for heart failure patients.