Health Foundation survey finds UK public “overall supportive” of virtual wards but support is “finely balanced”

The Health Foundation has released results from a survey of 7,100 members of the public and 1,250 NHS staff members which focused on exploring opinions on virtual wards and “what factors will be important for making sure they work well”, with findings revealing that the UK public “is, overall, supportive of virtual wards” but support is “finely balanced”, with an underlying lack of understanding which “risks slowing the take-up of this model of care”.

Results showed that 45 percent of the public and 63 percent of the NHS staff surveyed were supportive of virtual wards, whilst around one-third of the public remained unsupportive and 19 percent “do not know whether they are supportive or not”. Members of the public were more supportive if they were disabled (50 percent), had a carer (58 percent), or were a carer themselves (55 percent).

Support also varied by socioeconomic group, with those receiving their income from the welfare state or from unskilled manual or semi-skilled jobs, being less supportive overall (36 percent and 38 percent respectively).

Members of the public who were knowledgeable about the NHS’s uses of technology were also found to be “significantly more likely to be supportive” of the virtual wards concept, with 70 percent of those who knew “a great deal”, and 53 percent of those who knew “some” about how the NHS is using technology recording their support. The Health Foundation finds this to be “consistent with previous Health Foundation research showing that confidence in technologies rises when people feel they have more knowledge of them”.

When it came to actually using a virtual ward for themselves, almost three-quarters of members of the public surveyed would “personally be happy to be treated through a virtual ward, as long as their concerns and conditions were addressed”; while 27 percent said they would not. Conditional support, where respondents said “it depends”, was higher amongst those 65 and older than those aged 25-34, suggesting that “older age groups are potentially more open to using virtual wards under the right conditions”.

When the respondents who said that they would be happy to be treated through a virtual ward dependent on circumstances were asked what would impact their decision, 77 percent said that it would depend on the illness or condition; 43 percent said it would depend if they could get help quickly if they needed it; and 28 percent said it would depend whether they could be sure the quality of care was “just as good”. Other factors included regularity of contact with NHS staff, what kind of technologies they would be expected to use, if their home was suitable, and if they had support at home from someone else.

For those who were against being treated in a virtual ward, 47 percent said this was due to a preference for face-to-face contact; 43 percent said that they didn’t think the quality of care would be as good; and 34 percent said they felt they might not be able to access a health professional as quickly if they needed to. Other concerns included lack of ability to care for themselves at home, lack of suitability of their home as a virtual ward, doubts around ability to use technology and doubts around security of data.

Respondents to the survey were generally happy with the idea of monitoring their own health at home, using technologies such as blood pressure monitors, with almost 80 percent stating that they would be happy to do this.

Finally, the survey asked NHS staff which factors were most important for ensuring that virtual wards “work well”. The most popular answer, attracting 40 percent of votes, was that “people can get admitted quickly to hospital if their condition changes”; followed by “people can still talk to a health professional if they need help” at 36 percent; “people get to choose whether they want to stay on a ‘virtual’ ward or in hospital” attracted 31 percent of votes; and “people feel confident using the technology at home”, receiving 30 percent of votes.

Overall, the Health Foundation concluded that “there is further to go to secure buy-in across the population as a whole”, and that “awareness raising could play an important role in building support”. It also noted the importance of ensuring that people’s homes are suitable to be used as virtual wards, and that they have the right support in place.

In February, we hosted a panel discussion on the topics of virtual wards and remote patient care, with guests Tara Donnelly, director of digital care models at NHS England; Sam Jackson, clinical services manager for the Virtual Health Hub at Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust; and Jamie Innes, product director at Inhealthcare.

Last month, we wrote about the role of virtual wards in the first NHS Impact programme, and the DHSC’s ambitions to scale-up virtual ward capacity as a “standard alternative to acute care in hospital across a range of conditions”.

Earlier this month, we looked at NHS England’s winter resilience plans, which also assign importance to the role of virtual wards in building capacity and coping with increased demand on health and care services.

To read the findings from the Health Foundation’s survey on virtual wards in full, please click here.