Sep 01 2022

The Rise of the Virtual Nurse

Virtual nursing programs help hospitals overcome staffing shortages and support onsite nurses in providing patient care.

Healthcare organizations across the U.S. are under tremendous pressure as the growing need for nurses outpaces a shrinking workforce. There have been unprecedented challenges from the large, aging baby boomer population. Nurses are also getting older, with a median age of 524.7 million are projected to retire by 2030.

“None of us are going to have the complement of nurses that we would like to have moving forward, so we have to get creative with the way that we provide care,” says Jennifer Ball, director of virtual care at Saint Luke’s Health System in Kansas City, Mo.

Healthcare systems like Saint Luke’s are increasingly turning to virtual nursing to address the shortage. Virtual nurses work in remote centers with videoconferencing technology to observe and answer questions from patients, speak with family members and ease the burden on bedside nurses by performing tasks that don’t require physical proximity, such as conducting admissions interviews and providing discharge instructions.

“What better way to retain those experienced nurses who might be thinking of retiring or leaving the field early?” Ball says. “It’s a great way to allow them to continue their careers and for us to have access to all of their wonderful knowledge.”

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There has been a 34 percent increase in the number of virtual nursing programs around the U.S. in the past year, says Laura DiDio, principal at research and consulting firm ITIC. The growth was spurred by the pandemic, “but it shows no signs of slowing down,” she adds.

Virtual nurses support bedside nurses in healthcare facilities, but they can also see patients at home using remote monitoring tools to collect clinical data, DiDio says. During the pandemic, virtual nurses used high-definition cameras and tablets to connect patients in isolation with their loved ones. Digital hospice and palliative care ­visits became commonplace.

“You will always have hands-on bedside care. That’s not going away,” Ball says. “But we must expand the types of caregivers that we have. I think virtual nursing is the wave of the future.”

READ MORE: HealthTech influencer Sherri Hess explains the importance of listening to nurses.

The Technology Behind Virtual Nursing

Virtual nurses typically operate in remote centers manned with fully loaded workstations. At Saint Luke’s, each workstation uses a mix of multiple monitors, including HP monitors, the Epic Monitor dashboard feature and the Teladoc virtual healthcare platform, which includes a microphone, camera and videoconferencing software. Saint Luke’s also uses LogMeIn (now called GoTo) for remote desktop access so that virtual nurses can document as second nurse.

All the technologies used by Saint Luke’s virtual nurses were in use before the program launched. Even the workstations’ 5-foot adjustable desks were repurposed from an older project, Ball says. “We have been really lucky because we didn’t have to start from scratch with new technology,” she adds.

At Atrium Health in North Carolina, patient rooms use one of two setups to enable observation for its virtual nursing program to support newer nurses. New facilities are designed with audio and video capabilities, so the push of a button calls the virtual nurse, who appears on screen. Older facilities use wheeled poles with mounted cameras, speakers, microphones and monitors. Atrium Health uses the Caregility telehealth platform, Cerner cameras and software, and Microsoft Teams.

Jennifer Ball
None of us are going to have the complement of nurses that we would like to have moving forward, so we have to get creative with the way that we provide care.”

Jennifer Ball Director of Virtual Care, Saint Luke’s Health System

Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., uses mobile devices with audio and video capabilities for its “virtual sitter” program, which allows nurses to monitor multiple patients at once. “They kind of look like a robot that you would see in a cartoon,” Karen Hughart, senior director of nursing informatics at VUMC, says of the devices.

VUMC’s virtual sitter program launched in 2019, when a dramatic increase in patients needing observation — those at risk of falls or other types of harm — coincided with Nashville’s booming economy, making it difficult to hire entry-level patient-care attendants.

“Sometimes, patients just need somebody to redirect them if they start to get out of bed because they’re confused,” Hughart says. “We’re not relying on patients to press their call bell. There’s somebody available to monitor them to determine if the patient needs immediate assistance, and they’re notifying the patient’s bedside nurse directly instead of waiting until the patient has had a bad outcome.”

Virtual sitters, who use 24-inch Dell monitors to observe patients centrally, can even use recorded messages from family members to reorient patients. “Sometimes a voice that they recognize is more effective with redirecting their behaviors,” Hughart adds.

WATCH: How technology is transforming nurse workflows.

Virtual Nursing Supports New Nurses on the Floor

The pandemic placed stressors not only on practicing nurses but also on those in training. “Nursing school students didn’t get the same experience that some of us more seasoned nurses have because their clinical rotations were cut short,” says Becky Fox, Atrium Health’s vice president and chief nursing informatics officer.

Health systems like Atrium and Saint Luke’s assigned experienced virtual nurses to mentor recent graduates. They can walk bedside nurses through procedures, interact with the care team on rounds and even listen in on a patient’s lungs via a remote stethoscope, Fox says.

“Imagine you’re a new graduate, and you’re concerned that your patient is taking a turn for the worse. It helps knowing that you’ve got someone on screen who has your back,” she adds.

Atrium Health has seen call bell volumes go down while patient satisfaction scores have risen, Fox says. It also saw a decrease in the number of rapid response team calls, in which the whole care team rushes to a patient’s bedside amid a crisis, because virtual nurses can spot problems before they escalate.

The organization was already using video capabilities in other areas, such as translators and disease education specialists, to help nurses manage patients’ care. Atrium Health expects the use of video capabilities to develop further.

Source: World Health Organization, “State of the World’s Nursing 2020,” April 2020

At VUMC’s virtual sitter program, Hughart sees similar potential. It’s currently in use only in the adult hospital, but VUMC would like to expand virtual care capabilities. Some vendors provide not only the equipment to support such programs, but also the virtual nurses themselves, she adds.

“That’s very attractive to us right now,” Hughart says, “because like a lot of other facilities, we’re struggling to keep pace with the demand for nurses.”

Saint Luke’s has seen many benefits from its virtual nursing program. Patients always have immediate access to someone, and bedside nurses have help with time-consuming tasks, such as ordering meals for patients and completing quality checks.

“Care is delivered on time, and everything is double- and triple-checked,” Ball says. “It allows for a more efficient hospital stay.”

Other staff, such as pharmacists and social workers, have expressed interest in using the virtual center. The four smaller critical-access hospitals in the Saint Luke’s network have already installed virtual care equipment in their rooms to gain greater access to specialists throughout the system. For instance, a diabetes education specialist can now meet with a patient in one location through the videoconferencing tools, and then 30 minutes later, meet with another patient who’s two hours away.

“I think there will be a lot of ways to use this technology in the future, and we’re probably not even aware of everything we can do,” Ball says. “This is an opportunity for us to provide more holistic care to all patients.”

DISCOVER: How to get the most out of virtual care technology.

Getty Images: CSA Images (arrow and woman); Nastco (monitors)

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