"Virtual wards” help children spend less time in hospital

A new “virtual ward” approach pioneered by the NHS in the Black Country is helping children go home from hospital sooner – or even avoid being admitted at all.

A virtual ward combines state-of-the-art app technology and medical devices such as pulse oximeters, with on-demand access to specialist children’s nurses and doctors – enabling parents and carers to look after their child in the comfort and familiarity of their own home.

The Black Country system is the first in England to introduce virtual wards for children, and following a successful pilot in Dudley, the model has also been introduced in Walsall and Wolverhampton. Mark Axcell, Chief Executive of NHS Black Country Integrated Care Board, said:

“Ensuring that people get the right care in the right place at the right time is our priority, both in terms of giving patients the best possible experience and helping the NHS manage demand on services.

“Where a child is eligible to be cared for using the virtual ward approach, we can reduce the time they spend in hospital or avoid it altogether, which frees up beds on the children’s ward for those who need them most, as well as reducing the burden on parents or carers to have to travel back and forth to hospital.

“I think the best thing about the new virtual wards though is the positive impact it’s had on the families who have used them.

“Parents and carers involved in our very successful Dudley pilot have fed back to staff that it’s a big relief to be able to take their child home, but that they also feel well supported and empowered to play a role in their child’s recovery.”

The first paediatric virtual ward opened on 1 March at Dudley Group NHS Foundation Trust and it has so far supported 114 children and young people, ranging in age from 15 days to 14 years. Julian Hobbs, Dudley Group Foundation Trust medical director, said:

“The virtual ward is innovation at its best and we were proud to be the first trust in the country to pilot this initiative. Feedback from families in our communities has been excellent and importantly the virtual ward frees up bed space within the Trust and increases our capacity.”

The virtual ward programme is entirely optional for parents, and children are assessed by specialists to ensure they are clinically suitable. The children’s ward team works closely with the family to train them to use the equipment, answer their questions and ensure they are fully comfortable before they are discharged home.

The family then takes part in virtual “ward rounds” with clinicians and has direct telephone access to specialist clinical staff in case of any queries 

Wayne Lewis’ son Tyler was admitted to Russells Hall Hospital in Dudley with a severe infection and when his condition improved, the family was offered the chance to take a virtual ward kit home. He said:

“Tyler just wanted to be at home with his family as we all do. The virtual ward was completely new to us, and we took full advantage of it.

“It’s a brilliant piece of kit because you can bring it home and they can monitor your child at home. They can see every result from home, which is beneficial to us and the hospital. It saves them resources with beds, it saves us the time having to sort out arrangements at home, sort out businesses and work commitments, travelling back and forward, or wasting services that other people can benefit from in a more serious condition.”

Following the Dudley pilot’s success, two new paediatric virtual wards have launched at Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust and Royal Wolverhampton Hospitals NHS Trust.

Suzanne Priest, care group manager for Walsall Manor Hospital’s paediatric service, oversaw the Walsall launch, with the first patient being discharged home on 2 August. She added:

“The modern technology is great as we can send children and young people home instead of keeping them on a ward whilst parents have the reassurance and support in monitoring them at home.

“Their family or carers record the child’s vitals such as their temperature or blood pressure from the comfort of their own home. By uploading this information into the app, the paediatric virtual ward community nursing team can review and provide support ensuring patient safety.

“Parents are able to contact the team for any questions or advice, with out of hours support via the Paediatric Assessment Unit.”


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