NHS England has set out plans for 10,000 ‘virtual ward’ beds that will require support from GPs in a move that the BMA warns will pile more pressure on primary care.
As part of the Government’s emergency care plan, NHS England said 7,000 virtual ward beds are already in place the community, with plans for a further 3,000 beds, treating up to 50,000 patients a month in a bid to reduce secondary care waiting lists.
It also laid out plans for a further roll out of virtual wards for children and young people with expanded provision across all regions by September.
Last week, following the publication of the emergency care plan, NHS England published new guidance on virtual wards, which it said ‘support patients who would otherwise be in hospital to receive the acute care, monitoring and treatment they need in their own home’.
The guidance said: ‘A virtual ward should be clinically led by a named registered consultant practitioner, ie doctor, nurse, AHP or GP with knowledge and capabilities in the relevant specialty or model of care (or access to specialist medical advice).’
It added: ‘ICSs must ensure that there are clear, formalised pathways in place to support early recognition of deteriorating symptoms and out-of-hours support to manage deterioration, enabling capacity in existing out-of-hours services, including community night nursing team services or GP out-of-hours service where appropriate.’
But Dr Kieran Sharrock, acting chair of GPC England at the BMA, said that having virtual wards to relieve pressures on hospitals relies on there being extra capacity elsewhere in the system, of which there is none.
He told Pulse: ‘Doctors want to innovate, and see the potential benefits that could come with virtual wards, but we can’t do that if the Government hasn’t go the basics right: bolstering the workforce.
‘Virtual wards may solve the pressures problem in hospitals, but instead move them to another, equally-stretched part of the health service.’
Dr Sharrock said patients on virtual wards ‘will still need to be regularly monitored and kept safe’, adding: ‘Expecting GPs and their teams to support virtual wards without addressing the worsening workforce crisis will only drive up waiting times in general practice, and ultimately put patient safety at risk.’
Dr Adrian Hayter, a GP in Egham and National Clinical Director for Older People and Integrated Person Centred Care at NHS England, said: ‘We need joined-up care in and around people’s homes, especially for older people living with frailty, or with long-term conditions, so that they only go to hospital when necessary and receive a better experience of care when they leave.’
At the end of last month, after the Government’s announcement, the BMA warned the urgent care plan is likely to push workload onto already-overworked GPs and their teams and thereby jeopardising patient safety.
The Government said the measures will be ‘aligned with priorities for primary care,’ including the forthcoming GP access recovery plan and the implementation of the Fuller stocktake report.