Patients are to be treated in their own homes using digital technology under a new “virtual ward” programme to be rolled out in two hospitals early next year. The programme, to be announced by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly on Monday, will enable patients who would normally have to stay in hospital to be monitored and treated for some illnesses at home.
Virtual wards aim to reduce reliance on hospitals and support patients’ preferences for care in their own homes. In other countries they are used for patients with chronic conditions such as heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Patients treated in a virtual ward – also known as hospital at home – remain under the care of their doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. Ward rounds can involve a home visit or a video call.
Patients are typically given electronic gadgets – blood-pressure cuffs, thermometers and oximeters – so hospital staff can collect data about their health in real time. Observations are personalised to each patient’s needs, with alerts and protocols established to ensure that should any deterioration in their condition occur it is attended to immediately and appropriately.
Mr Donnelly has requested the programme be rolled out next year, starting in University Hospital Limerick and St Vincent’s University Hospital in Dublin. Virtual wards in other sites are expected to come on stream later in 2024. The two hospitals sites will each treat an initial 800 patients via the virtual wards approach.
The programme is seen as offering a practical solution to bed shortages, as well as providing a preferred option of treatment for many patients.
Last year 10 patients with COPD were given care through a pilot virtual ward initiative in Letterkenny, Co Donegal. The patients were reviewed daily at the start of the shift by an advanced nurse practitioner and contacted when any trend from the normal was detected. Antibiotics and steroids were dispensed to treat exacerbations of their conditions.
None of the patients needed to be admitted for treatment of their condition during this time and improvements in health outcomes were recorded.
More than 1,000 hospital beds have been added in the State since 2018, but Ireland still has one of the lowest number of beds in Europe relative to population.
To help minimise hospital overcrowding this winter the Health Service Executive (HSE) has introduced stricter discharge rules as well as measures designed to remove the need for some patients to attend hospital at all.
- Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date