“We’re looking for patients,” Jodie Storrow tells me as we walk down a long corridor on the third floor of University Hospital Coventry.
We headed towards room 31. This is where the hospital’s respiratory patients are treated.
Jodie, the hospital’s clinical operations manager for integrated care, has a very specific type of patient she wants.
“One with COPD, who is on an upward trajectory and doesn’t need any additional support at home,” she says.
What she means is a patient with a chest, lung, or respiratory condition, who is improving and can be safely discharged without concern for a care package.
These are the type of patients who fit the profile of hospital “virtual wards.”
The hospital is operating near full capacity. In his emergency department, they wait for patients who have been admitted but cannot go up to a floor because there are no beds available.
So Jodie must find patients whose care she can continue remotely at home.
“Hospitals are very busy,” he explains. “There’s no secret. So if we free up beds in our wards, we free up another bed for someone who needs it.”
At Ward 31, Jodie meets her patient, Richard Hall, a 56-year-old retiree from Coventry.
Richard was rushed to hospital last week after he nearly passed out after inhaling paint fumes. He has a long history of chronic lung disease.
Richard has taken advantage of the possibility of being discharged early. He didn’t expect to come home until next week.
He tells me that he is anxious to stay at the hospital and that he needs to get back to his flat as soon as possible.
“Christmas is coming,” he says.
“All my heating and everything is on in my apartment too, so I’m burning electricity right now. I need to get home and get things fixed for Christmas, so yeah, it means the world to me.”
Richard will be given a smartphone and will be asked to take his oxygen and blood pressure readings and his temperature up to three times a day.
He inputs the recordings into a phone app that transmits the information to a computer at the hospital.
The data is closely monitored and any warnings indicating a deterioration in your health are sent to supervisors, who can then take action.
Identifying patients like Richard who benefit from home care eases the pressure on the hospital.
It’s a strategy developed during the pandemic and forms a key pillar of the care-at-home measures that top health leaders are pushing as part of their winter crisis plans.
The bed shortage puts pressure on every part of the hospital, including its emergency department. If beds cannot be found, ambulances cannot deliver sick patients.
In the hospital’s new minor injuries unit, Dr. Ed Hartley, its clinical director of emergency medicine, points to some charts displayed on an iPad-sized monitor mounted on the wall.
He explains that there are four ambulances waiting at the hospital ready to discharge the patients and deal with the next emergency, but they can’t because there is nowhere to put them.
The hospital’s medical director, Professor Kiran Patel, had previously told me that 56 patients had been admitted across the hospital and were awaiting beds.
This hospital, like many in England, has too many patients who are ready to go home but cannot be discharged because there is no social care package for them.
Dr. Hartley says, “Five years ago, you wouldn’t come into emergency departments, you wouldn’t be seen, you wouldn’t need a bed, and then you would wait several hours for that bed.
“That would not happen, we would have considered it unacceptable. And that is now something that happens every day.”
It was here at Coventry Hospital exactly two years ago that Margaret Keenan received the world’s first COVID vaccine.
That vaccine changed the course of the pandemic.
That health crisis forced change and innovation in the NHS, such as the virtual room that will now allow Richard to go home early.
The health service will need more of the same if it wants to face the winter that is already on its way.