Virtual ward scheme could save 8,000 acute bed days a year

University Hospital Limerick

A NEW ‘hospital at home’ scheme is being rolled out at University Hospital Limerick next year, aiming to allow patients be observed at home rather than having to stay in hospital.

The new ‘virtual wards’ will use digital technology to help doctors and nurses treat patients in their own homes.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly formally announced the establishment of the Acute Virtual Ward programme, which will start in early 2024 in University Hospital Limerick and St Vincent’s University Hospital in Dublin.

Under the new plan, certain patients are to be monitored and treated at home, using video conferencing and giving patients various medical aids, including blood pressure cuffs and thermometers to collect data and help clinicians assess their wellbeing state.

Announcing the new direction, Minister Donnelly said: “Expansion of virtual services and the effective utilisation of digital technology in healthcare needs to happen. I asked the HSE to explore options to introduce virtual wards as I believe it has huge potential.”

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“I am delighted to see this programme established and supported by clinicians at all levels in our health service. The technology-enabled scheme also supports patients’ preferences for better integrated services, closer, or indeed in their own homes.”

The pioneering hospital at home scheme is suitable for a range of different conditions and is used in other countries for patients with chronic conditions such as heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

This programme will enable patients, who would traditionally have had to stay in hospital, to be monitored and treated for some illnesses in their own homes.

Patients receiving care under a virtual ward remain under the care of their doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. Ward rounds can involve a home visit or video call.

Observations are personalised to each patient’s needs with alerts and protocols established to ensure that any deterioration in their condition is attended to immediately and appropriately.

Minister Donnelly said the scheme is “empowering people to be active partners in managing their health and wellbeing” and helps to reduce dependence on the hospital-centric model of care.

“I look forward to progress being made and seeing the impacts and further expansion of the Adult Virtual Ward model into 2024 and beyond.”

It’s projected the project will potentially save over 8,000 bed days per year in each of the acute hospitals.