Heart failure to be treated at home as NHS expands virtual wards programme

Thousands of people with heart failure can now be treated at home as the NHS continues to expand its use of virtual wards to free up hospital beds.

Virtual wards allow patients to remain at home while receiving care from clinical staff, who use apps or wearable technology to monitor them remotely.

Teams can also prescribe medications, order blood tests and administer fluids intravenously if needed.

The expansion of the programme comes after virtual wards were given the green light to treat patients with acute respiratory infections by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) in August.

They are also used for frail patients who want to remain in the comfort of their own home.

According to NHS England, about 920,000 people in the UK are living with heart failure, with 200,000 new cases diagnosed annually.

It also claims the condition is attributed to 5% of all emergency hospital admissions in the UK.

Professor Nick Linker, national clinical director for heart disease at NHS England, said: “It’s estimated there are over 900,000 people in the UK living with heart failure, many of whom will require specialist support and management if their condition deteriorates.

“The expansion of virtual wards for eligible heart failure patients will mean that, where clinically appropriate, more people will be able to receive the care and treatment they need from the convenience of their own home and reduce the need for hospital admissions.”

John Maingay, director of policy and influencing at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said: “With ever-increasing pressure on the NHS, we need to look at new and improved ways of delivering heart failure care.

“With the right support, virtual wards can deliver safe care in the comfort of someone’s home, and this could help to reduce rising hospital admissions due to heart failure while improving treatment outcomes.

“It’s important that local services have enough trained and supported staff to fully implement this new guidance.”

There are about 12 virtual wards dedicated to treating heart failure up and running, NHS England said, with the Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (LUHFT) and Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust (MCFT) already taking part in the scheme.

Combined, the two trusts have treated more than 500 patients with the condition virtually.

Earlier this month, NHS England said it had delivered on its ambition to roll out 10,000 virtual ward beds by the end of September.

More than 240,000 patients have now been treated on virtual wards, it said, with national medical director Prof Sir Stephen Powis calling the programme “a huge leap forward” in the way patients are treated.

Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said the expansion “will allow people to get the specialist care they need from the comfort of familiar surroundings”.

“This approach will help speed up recovery times for patients and cut down on unnecessary trips to hospital, easing pressure on the NHS this winter,” he added.

The milestone came as new figures revealed NHS waiting lists had reached 7.75 million in August.

It is the highest since records began in 2007.

Sir Stephen added that the latest expansion of virtual wards “has been implemented at a key time just before winter, when there will be a lot more pressure on our hospitals and will free up beds for those who need them the most”.

Louise Ansari, chief executive of Healthwatch England, said: “Early indications show that those who have used virtual wards like the convenience of being treated or recovering at home, with the knowledge that they can still access support if needed.

“The news that the programme is being expanded will be welcomed by those who prefer to be at home rather than in hospital and don’t mind remote consultations.”