The National Health Service (NHS) is currently oversubscribed with staff burnout from pay cuts, and it has struggled to stay up-to-date with evolving needs following staff and resource shortages, including being 47,000 nurses short, funding pressures, outdated systems of practice, a patient-focused model and a lack of national standards. According to the British Medical Association (BMA), following the Covid-19 pandemic in October 2022, there were 7.21 million patients whose appointments had been delayed by up to 18 months.

The NHS has decided to tackle these issues by introducing virtual wards. Originally starting ten years ago, the NHS introduced virtual wards to monitor patients, assess patient data and calculate which patients were most at risk of requiring emergency care. Now, the government is introducing more virtual wards. However, this time around, the aim is not to prevent patients from needing emergency care, but instead to keep an eye on them once they have been discharged. As there is not enough hospital capacity, the virtual wards operate after the patient has received treatment, where they return home and are told to wear devices that provide the NHS with health readings that can be remotely monitored by on-premise health staff.

Virtual aftercare could have detrimental health effects on ageing and vulnerable populations

While patient home recovery can be more comfortable than staying in a hospital, the data provided by the monitoring devices can sometimes lead to inaccuracies. Alongside this, virtual homecare does not allow for the detection of subtle indicators that often highlight ill health, such as patient discolouration, pupil dilation, responsiveness, quietness and state of the catheter bag, among others.

The idea of virtual homecare may ease the demand for hospital beds, but it does not tackle the root of many of the problems, namely underfunding and staff shortages. In fact, virtual homecare could lead to instances of clinical negligence, as it may be difficult for on-premise staff to get to their computers in time when dealing with patients in real life. Ultimately, virtual homecare dismisses issues around ageing and complex patient needs, and will likely harm these vulnerable populations. 

According to Brian Bostock, NHS nurse and healthcare management consultant, while homecare is important, it is not the answer to everything. Bostock suggests that the NHS needs to be correctly funded, with increased investment in improved workforce plans.