England’s NHS is struggling to staff virtual hospitals
May 31, 2023
LONDON – England’s health-worker shortage is so severe that the National Health Service can’t staff “virtual wards” that were meant to relieve the burden on its struggling hospitals. Plans to roll out thousands more virtual wards – where patients get the care they need at home rather than at a hospital – are being severely hampered by the dearth of clinical staff, according to the NHS Confederation, which represents UK medical workers and hospitals.
Virtual wards have been touted as part of the solution to address pressures faced by the NHS which is grappling with an aging population, high hospital occupancy rates and difficulties discharging people into the community. One estimate shows that a virtual ward within Croydon, South London saved nearly £743 ($919) a patient.
A national target to set up 50 virtual wards per every 100,000 patients – equivalent to 24,000 beds – across England by December is now at risk. Even an intermediate goal of creating 10,000 virtual beds by the autumn is in jeopardy, said Matthew Taylor, chief executive officer of the NHS Confederation.
The health system is being “set up to fail” by the lack of a long-term workforce plan and insufficient understanding of local populations needs by the government, he said in a statement. “There is now a real and urgent need to address staffing in the NHS and we know that this is having a significant impact on all aspects of care.”
A report earlier this year from the Nuffield Trust, an independent health think tank, said the expansion of virtual wards should be an important component of planning for winter. However, it said they are not a quick fix and it still remains to be seen if they will succeed in easing some of the NHS’s growing challenges.