NHS patients are being prescribed smartphones and training to master the technology

Patients are being prescribed smart phones as part of a campaign to speed up 'virtual services' (stock)

Patients are being prescribed smartphones and receiving technology training on the NHS in a bid to free up hospital beds.

NHS England has set a target of creating 25,000 more ‘beds’ by 2024 by expanding the use of ‘virtual services’ to treat more people at home.

The rooms are designed for patients who need care but do not necessarily need to be hospitalized.

They involve the remote monitoring of patients using mobile apps and gadgets that can check oxygen and blood pressure.

NHS chiefs said patients in some pilots were already being given mobile phones and given lessons to help them master the technology. For people who do not have access to Wi-Fi, trusts provide them with devices that have access to 4G.

Dr Sarah Sibley, who runs virtual services in Merseyside, said a ‘barrier’ was that many vulnerable people – especially the elderly – don’t have access to the right technology.

She added: “And we work in very socially deprived areas, people don’t have access to tech devices or data to be able to upload information.”

Tara Donnelly, director of digital care models at NHS England, said other trusts had made deals with companies like Vodafone to lend phones and tablets to patients.

Patients are being prescribed smart phones as part of a campaign to speed up ‘virtual services’ (stock)

Virtual wards have been around for years but became important during the pandemic, when patients were monitored remotely to preserve capacity and prevent hospital outbreaks.

An NHS cash injection of £160million in 2021 has been used to fund several non-Covid trials of virtual services, with the aim of freeing up more beds to clear the elective care backlog.

Around 5,000 patients are currently being treated in more than 50 virtual NHS wards across England.

Patients in the wards are monitored by a consultant or general practitioners via daily phone calls or chats on mobile apps.

In some cases, patients will be provided with a wearable device to continuously monitor and report their vital signs.

NHS waiting list hits ANOTHER record

The number of people awaiting routine hospital treatment in England has soared to a new record high, official figures show.

As the NHS crisis deepens, one in nine people (6.48million) queued for elective operations such as hip and knee replacements and cataract surgery in April – up from 6.36 million blocked in March.

There are now 323,093 patients who have been waiting for their operation for at least a year, up 5.5%.

Meanwhile, 12,735 have been stuck on the list since before Covid hit Britain in early 2020, down by a quarter.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has pledged to reduce all one-year-plus waits to zero by 2025, using the 1.25% National Insurance hike that will increase the health service by Another £30 billion over the next three years.

Despite the worsening Covid-induced backlog, response times in A&E and for ambulances have actually improved slightly.

More than 19,000 patients attending emergency units were still forced to wait 12 hours or more for a bed, in conditions described by experts as “inhumane”. That was down a fifth from the previous month – but emergency doctors say the NHS England figures are a ‘gross underrepresentation’ of the actual crisis.

Dr Sibley, who is also a respiratory consultant at Liverpool Heart and Chest Hospital, said ‘things have worked very well during Covid from a technology perspective’.

But the technology had been more “difficult” to implement for traditional illnesses – often suffered by the elderly or vulnerable.

She added: “So we had to come up with a suite of options, which included using an app on a device if they had one.

“If they didn’t have a device at the time, we could provide them with a smart phone to use for the duration of their stay in the virtual service.

“And we have phone options…and devices that are easier to use and with fewer options available.

“But one of the things we’ve found is that some people don’t know how to use technology.” She said these patients also received technical training.

Dr Sibley made the comments to health service leaders today at an NHS annual conference in Liverpool during a presentation called ‘Delivering virtual services: top tips for success’.

The NHS has set a national target of ‘virtually’ treating 40-50 patients per 100,000 people by 2024, which equates to around 25,000 across England.

An additional amount of up to £450million will be available to support the creation of the wards, according to NHS England operational planning guidelines.

They are currently used for people with respiratory infections, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and frail people.

People can either be added to the list of virtual services when they leave the hospital to return home, or be “admitted” from the community.

Advocating for virtual services, Ms Donnelly said: ‘If you are seriously ill, there is no better place than hospital.

“But once you get past that immediate, acute need, home has huge benefits.

“You can sleep and rest more easily, you can mobilize effectively, eat the food you want to eat, and have your support network and loved ones around you – all of this boosts recovery and is a huge boost to morale.”

Some within the NHS want to label them as ‘hospitals at home’ due to concerns that the ‘virtual’ service has negative connotations.

Elliot Howard-Jones, the boss of the Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust, which runs virtual services for heart and lung patients, said he preferred the term ‘home hospital’.

He said the virtual word “degrades the absolute benefit” of the services and compared it to offering “a virtual ten or a real ten”.

It comes amid an ongoing row over virtual appointments, particularly with GPs.

Activists have argued that remote consultations increase the risk that doctors will miss signs of serious illnesses.

They also say this is especially true for some vulnerable patients, such as those with dementia, who may struggle to communicate remotely.