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Acute Virtual Ward Programme in Limerick University Hospital and St. Vincent’s University Hospital Announced

Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, has formally announced the establishment of the Acute Virtual Ward programme, which will commence in early 2024 in Limerick University Hospital and St. Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin.

Announcing the new Virtual Wards Minister Donnelly, said, “expansion of virtual services and the effective utilisation of digital technology in healthcare needs to happen. I asked the HSE to explore options to introduce Virtual Wards as I believe it has huge potential. I am delighted to see this Programme established and supported by clinicians at all levels in our health service. The technology-enabled scheme also supports patients’ preferences for better integrated services, closer, or indeed in their own homes.”

The pioneering hospital at home scheme is suitable for a range of different conditions and is used in other countries for patients with chronic conditions such as heart disease and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). This Programme will enable patients, who would traditionally have had to stay in hospital, to be monitored and treated for some illnesses in their own homes.

Patients receiving care under a Virtual Ward remain under the care of their doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. Ward rounds can involve a home visit, or video call. Patients are typically given electronic gadgets—blood-pressure cuffs, thermometers, oximeters—so that 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.

Minister Donnelly said, “empowering people to be active partners in managing their health and wellbeing is a central tenet of the Virtual Ward and is hugely important in delivering our Programme for Government commitment to introduce more care in the community and closer to home. This helps us to reduce our dependence on the hospital-centric model of care and allows people to remain living at home. I look forward to progress being made and seeing the impacts and further expansion of the Adult Virtual Ward model into 2024 and beyond.”

The Virtual Ward programme builds on remote monitoring that is already in place and is aiming to provide services for respiratory and cardiology patients in each site.

The impact of this in the two initial sites, St Vincent’s University Hospital and Limerick University Hospital, will potentially save over 8,000 bed days per year in each of the acute hospitals.

While the Minister has funded the opening of an additional 1,100 (net) acute hospital beds and a 25 per cent increase in critical care capacity since he took office, he said the health service still has fewer beds than it needs.

Aside from being preferable for many patients, the Virtual Ward scheme offers practical solutions to bed shortages.

More Virtual Wards are expected to come on stream in 2024 and additional conditions will be added as part of this phased roll-out. As it expands, the Virtual Ward programme has the potential to accept oncology and palliative care patients, as well as those with a wide range of other conditions, and could expand to enable patients to be monitored at home prior to surgery.

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