January 27, 2023

‘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 head towards ward 31. This is where the respiratory patients of the hospital are treated.

Jodie, the integrated care hospital’s clinical operations manager, has a very specific type of patient she wants.

“One with COPD, who is on the rise and doesn’t need extra support at home,” she says.

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What she means is a patient with a chest, lung or respiratory condition, who is on the mend and can be safely discharged without worrying about a care package.

These are the kind of patients that fit the profile of the hospital’s “virtual wards”.

The hospital is running at near capacity. In the emergency department, patients are waiting who have been admitted but cannot come to a department because there are no beds available.

So Jodie must find patients whose care can be continued remotely at home.

The hospital is running at near capacity
Image:
The hospital is running at near capacity

“Hospitals are very busy,” she explains. “There’s no secret. So when we free up beds in our wards, we’re freeing up another bed for someone who needs it.”

On Ward 31, Jodie finds her patient, Richard Hall, a retired 56-year-old from Coventry.

Richard was rushed to hospital last week after nearly passing out after inhaling paint fumes. He has a long history of chronic lung disease.

Richard grabbed the opportunity to be laid off early with both hands. He didn’t expect to go home until next week.

He tells me he is afraid to stay in the hospital and needs to get back to his flat as soon as possible.

“It’s approaching Christmas,” he says.

“All my heating and everything in my flat is on too, so I’m currently burning electricity. I have to get home to get things done for Christmas, so yes, it means everything to me.”

Richard is given a smartphone and asked to take his oxygen and blood pressure readings and his temperature up to three times a day.

Richard Hall has a long history of chronic lung disease
Image:
Mr. Hall has a long history of chronic lung disease

He enters the recordings into a telephone app that forwards the information to a computer in the hospital.

The data is closely monitored and any alerts indicating a deterioration in his health are reported to supervisors who can then take action.

Identifying patients like Richard who benefit from home care relieves the pressure on the hospital.

It is a strategy developed during the pandemic and is an important part of the home care measures that senior health leaders are implementing as part of their winter crisis plans.

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The shortage of beds puts pressure on all parts of the hospital, including the emergency department. If no beds can be found, ambulances cannot transfer sick patients.

In the hospital’s new minor injury ward, Dr. Ed Hartley, the 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 standing by at the hospital, ready to discharge patients and attend the next emergency room, but they can’t because there is no place to put them.

The hospital’s chief physician, Professor Kiran Patel, had previously told me that 56 patients were admitted across the hospital and waiting for beds.

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This hospital, like many throughout 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 to the emergency room, be seen, need a bed and then wait several hours for that bed.

“That would not happen, we would have found that unacceptable. And that is now daily fare.”

Exactly two years ago, the world’s first COVID vaccine was given to Margaret Keenan here at Coventry Hospital.

That vaccine changed the course of the pandemic.

That health crisis forced change and innovation across the NHS, such as the virtual ward that now allows Richard to go home early.

Healthcare will need more of the same to cope with the approaching winter.

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