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Freedom of Information (FOI) Act data obtained by digital health technology provider Spirit Health has revealed the scale of the recruitment crisis that threatens to undermine the delivery of NHS England’s virtual ward ambition.

Spirit Health collected data from 107 NHS trusts across England and found that 40 percent need to recruit additional staff to support the delivery of virtual wards. Of trusts needing to recruit, a third anticipate making appointments across up to three roles, while some trusts have stated they expect to recruit new staff in as many as seven different roles before launching a virtual ward.

Of the 31 trusts that subsequently provided a breakdown of the roles they intend to hire, 84 percent anticipate hiring secondary care practitioners (such as consultants, therapists, advanced clinical practitioners, and nurses), with a further 29 percent seeking primary care practitioners (such as GPs and pharmacists).

The projected influx of specialised staff underscores the scale of this initiative, and the recruitment challenge that threatens to undermine the successful rollout of virtual wards, Spirit Health warns.

The impact of workforce challenges on the expansion of virtual wards has been felt directly by Spirit Health’s clinical monitoring team. In recent months, its in-house team has experienced an uplift in the number of requests for flexible clinical support to trusts to deliver digital programmes and help them onboard staff.

This latest research comes after a recent report by the Health and Social Care Select Committee. It suggested more than 475,000 NHS staff will be needed by early 2030 to deliver vital care, throwing into question how NHS Trusts plan to recruit and retain key staff.

Dr Noel O’Kelly, Clinical Director at Spirit Health, said: “Virtual wards offer a lifeline to enable the continued delivery of first-rate care and be a strong addition to face-to-face services, which have struggled to keep pace with the current workforce challenges and lengthy patient waiting lists across the health sector.

“NHS staffing shortages threaten to undermine the exciting opportunity that virtual wards bring: digital healthcare technology cannot support patients without the necessary specialists to operate it.

“These findings echo the frustrations that we hear from our partner trusts, who are reporting that workforce challenges are hindering efforts to scale this technology achieve its full potential. We must urgently demonstrate the capacity of this technology to ease pressures for the stretched workforce, and thus attract fresh talent to support its delivery.”

The acceleration of digital expansion plans is in response to NHS England’s recent mandate for all NHS trusts to offer 40 to 50 virtual beds per 100,000 population. This ‘comprehensive development of virtual wards’ comes at a time when hospital waiting lists are exceeding 6.6 million.

The NHS’ adoption of virtual wards could be driven by economic and time-saving benefits. For example, Spirit Health’s CliniTouch Vie virtual ward platform is predicted to save the health service more than £500,000, by building on the successful virtual ward pilot operation it ran to support Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust.

These significant savings will go a long way in supporting the NHS workforce of the future – with funding being freed up to be reinvested in both the upskilling of the current workforce and enlistment of new staff to further ease the current strains on the health system, the provider emphasises.

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