20 April 2020.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has raised real concerns about how our health system can cope with dramatic spikes in use. Could an innovative ‘virtual hospital’ concept help ease the burden on our hospitals, in good times and bad?

A new Sax Institute Rapid Evidence Scan has found that patients with heart disease are among those who could benefit most from an online care model, and the overall costs of going online appeared to be lower, while still delivering equal or better care.

The Rapid Evidence Scan was commissioned by Sydney Local Health District to inform their plans for RPA Virtual Hospital – a new model of care that will use video, telephone, SMS and real-time data transmission technology to provide in-home nursing care to over 1,000 patients.

Reducing costly admissions is a major concern for Australian hospitals, particularly with the current COVID-19 pressures on the health system. And while virtual healthcare could be part of the solution, little work has been done to assess its merits until now.

As part of the Rapid Evidence Scan, researchers reviewed the existing evidence around online healthcare to understand just how effective a virtual hospital model of care could be.

Researchers found the strongest evidence for effective virtual care was for heart disease patients (especially those with heart failure), as well as people with diabetes and those undergoing stroke rehabilitation. There was less evidence available for virtual cancer treatment, and the evidence for respiratory conditions remains inconclusive.

Exactly how patients could be treated remotely did vary – from telephone and videoconferencing to wearable devices, e-programs and robotic technologies.

Researchers also noted that most of the virtual interventions under review were delivered by a home visiting nurse or telephone support nurse. And while there’s little existing evidence around the cost of training staff to deliver this kind of care and equipment to homes, overall the costs of going online appeared to be lower, while still delivering equal or better care.

This Rapid Evidence Scan shines a timely light on the potential for hospital-grade care that doesn’t rely on home visits or face-to-face care – an approach that could be closer than we think.

A Sax Institute Rapid Evidence Scan is a fast, specialised review of existing evidence that can be delivered within four weeks. This expedited option is ideal for decision makers who need top-level findings, fast. Find out more about our Rapid Evidence Scans here.