How digital can support the NHS’s winter plan

The NHS has published their next steps to free up capacity and boost resilience of services ahead of winter. The plan focuses on virtual wards and remote monitoring as key to reducing hospital occupancy, promoting timely discharge, and providing better support for people at home. 

However, a reliance on virtual wards and remote monitoring to address winter pressures risks other digital healthcare tools being under looked. Existing research and case studies demonstrate how digital providers have transformed services and can help the NHS to achieve its goals.

Remote consultations:

The use of remote consultations offered by providers such as Digital Healthcare Council members Livi, Babylon, CheckUp Health, Visiba Care and askmyGP has many well-documented benefits. They can meet the NHS’s objectives of alleviating 111 pressures by enabling concerns to be addressed in a timely manner and reducing the spread of infection by encouraging people to stay at home.

DNA rates can be reduced by allowing consultations to be flexibly arranged around individual schedules, freeing up capacity for in-person consultations to be accessed by those who need them most. Additionally, research from The Health Foundation and askmyGP found that remote consultations and triage could contribute to reduced presentations for non-urgent conditions, with rates of A&E visits and emergency admissions falling from 51% to 35% in practices who adopted remote triage and consultations early in the pandemic.

Remote diagnostics:

Digital triage tools can further alleviate pressures on 111 and primary care by optimising NHS resources. DHC members HBS UK’s digital triage platform led to a 57% reduction of patients attending outpatient clinics, but without compromising care as patients are assessed within 72 hours and have direct access to a clinician at the click of a button.

Preventx’s remote sexual health platform allows patients to test for STIs at home. Patients are only triaged to clinics when absolutely necessary, freeing up capacity for concerns that can only be dealt with through an in-person consultation.

DHC members Ada, Visiba Care and Babylon take digital triage one step further using AI, delivering predictive insights to support the focused use of clinician resources and reduce unnecessary A&E admissions.

Online pharmacies:

Making it easier for patients to obtain repeat prescriptions without needing to make an appointment will further ease pressures on staff – expanding capacity for patients with urgent issues to be seen quicker. DHC members Dr Fox relieve burden on the NHS through issuing prescriptions via a short online consultation on their platform, without the need for an appointment at the patients usual GP. This provides a safe and convenient way for people to obtain medicine on prescription in a way that suits them.

Innovative social care provision:

The winter plan highlights how shortages in social care provision contribute to patients staying in hospital for longer than necessary. Innovative social care providers, such as DHC members Elder, can place live-in carers with patients within as little as 48 hours of the initial call, anywhere the UK. Employing this model across the UK can enable a seamless transition from hospital to home for patients with additional social care needs.

Improving flow:

Key to reducing hospital occupancy and timely discharge are initiatives to optimise patient flow. However, improving the patient flow process uses up additional staff time and effort which is in short supply.

By optimising bed notification, bed preparation and eradicating delays occupying a bed, evidence from Digital Healthcare Council member TeleTracking shows that we could increase capacity by the equivalent of 7000 beds per day across England. This equates to an additional 440,000 patients per year, or 36,900 per month. That’s a significant chunk towards addressing that 66,000 gap in admissions capacity.