October 1, 2023


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Virtual care is the new strategy for healthcare innovation in the NHS

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Professor Sultan Mahmud, Director of Healthcare at BT explores the latest virtual care NHS strategy, which BT is helping to deliver safely with the adoption of virtual wards

In the face of budget challenges and staffing shortages, the National Health Service (NHS) is confronted with a distinctive set of hurdles. With an ageing population, mounting waiting and discharge lists due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and an increasing number of individuals living with long-term health conditions, the pressure on the NHS has reached unprecedented levels. However, recent research from BT reveals 74% of NHS staff believe technology and virtual care can play a pivotal role in delivering superior quality care. But harnessing technology’s potential extends far beyond cables and infrastructure.

Technology has the power to connect for good and the NHS is ushering in a new era of innovative, patient-centred care. BT, as a trusted long-term partner, is working alongside the NHS to help build smarter, safer, and more efficient services. With a heritage of innovation, BT is harnessing its experience and capabilities to co-create and safely scale new ideas and approaches that deliver enhanced patient outcomes and address frontline challenges.

A new model of care: Virtual Wards

While aspects of the virtual ward concept, often referred to as “hospital at home,” have existed for some time, the pandemic and technology advancements have accelerated their implementation. NHS England considers virtual wards to be an approach that allows patients to get the care they need at home safely and conveniently, rather than being in hospital. They provide patients with acute virtual care, monitoring, and treatment in the comfort of their homes, either by preventing unnecessary hospital admissions or facilitating early discharge. Virtual wards have the potential to significantly transform patient care, enhancing the NHS’s agility, scalability, and freeing up desperately required hospital beds for those who really need them.

To advance the adoption of virtual wards, BT has launched a new innovative programme, dedicated to simplifying the deployment of the technology as well as virtual care and remote patient monitoring tools. It consists of a revolutionary, wrap-around approach using state of the art technology, empowering patients to take control of their own health by managing it at home safely and conveniently.

This envisages a unified service that seamlessly blends in-person and virtual care. Support includes remote monitoring using apps, technology platforms, wearables, and medical devices such as pulse oximeters.

Bolstered by BT’s partnership with digital health provider Feebris, virtual wards can leverage intelligent automation to generate real capacity for clinical teams. Feebris’ AI-supported virtual care platform enables anyone in the community to capture real-time, clinically reliable health information and assess the risk of rapid deterioration in conditions.

This is deployed by integrated care systems across the continuum of care, from care homes, community nursing, to virtual care wards, evidencing improved patient outcomes and reducing the pressure on clinical services.

Drawing on this, the Government’s plan for supporting urgent and emergency care recovery outlines how expanding virtual wards will be a key solution to prepare the NHS ahead of winter, providing additional capacity and improving patient flow. By December 2023, integrated care systems have been asked to deliver virtual ward capacity equivalent to 40 to 50 beds per 100,000 population to help deliver care closer to home.

Better ways of working: staff and patient well-being

Patient journeys are crucial to the NHS, encompassing everything from patients’ admission to discharge. Optimised workflows are essential to provide timely and high-quality care, minimising delays, shortening hospital stays, and improving patient satisfaction and outcomes.

While technology holds the potential to revolutionise care, its current state is a source of stress for 49% of NHS staff, highlighting a need for improvement in terms of usability and performance of digital solutions.

The introduction of virtual wards addresses this challenge directly. It frees up bed capacity, providing front-line staff with more time to focus on those who more urgently need it, while also empowering patients to manage their own recovery. Both of these aspects of virtual care will help to reduce the patient backlog currently being experienced.

To ensure the successful implementation of virtual wards, effective management is vital. This involves a clear decision-making process, supported by accurate data integration across primary care, community care, hospital emergency departments, and 111 services. Robust systems are needed to provide comprehensive oversight of patient capacity throughout the healthcare system, with real-time data availability enabling informed resource allocation and minimising risks associated with home-based, virtual care.

Helping those on the frontline in the NHS

At its heart, the NHS is a person-focused organisation, which means streamlining digital workflows is vital for staff empowerment. Tech must alleviate workloads and empower staff to allocate valuable time and resources more efficiently, enabling them to deliver the best possible care.

The challenge lies in effectively digitising patient care and bridging the translational gap between innovation and frontline implementation. BT’s Clinical Advisory Board is committed to supporting the NHS through co-developed, cutting-edge solutions. As Dr Mateen Jiwani, a member of the Clinical Advisory Board, says, “Innovation exists, but it isn’t always reaching the frontline.”

To address this gap, BT’s Vanguard Programme and BT’s research campus at Adastral park provide a collaborative space to engage in co-innovation between digital and clinical teams. Similarly, regular roundtables with healthcare leaders such as Nuffield Trust ensure that the issues impacting the front line are consistently discussed.

The future of healthcare is virtual

Beyond virtual wards, BT continues to forge partnerships with leading technology companies, such as my mHealth. Through this collaboration, personalised, digital interventions are made available for patients with long-term conditions. The my mhealth range of platforms empowers patients with tools for self-management, including rehabilitation programmes, accredited education courses, care plans, and medication management, giving patients more control over their own care.

Technology has immense potential to transform healthcare delivery, improve workforce well-being, and enhance patient outcomes. It can offer a path towards creating a more fulfilling working environment, positively impacting organisational cultures and reducing burnout and helping to retain staff.

To embark on this virtual care transformation successfully, the NHS requires effective technology integration to benefit staff and patients.

BT plays a pivotal role as a trusted partner that has proudly stood by its side for decades.

By harnessing technology and cultivating strategic partnerships, BT is committed to driving healthcare innovation which empowers patients and healthcare professionals alike. Together, we can create a future where technology connects for good, revolutionises healthcare delivery, enhances patient outcomes and bolsters our NHS to meet the challenges of tomorrow.


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