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Transforming Healthcare with Virtual Nursing: Considerations for Nurse Leaders

Virtual nursing, a concept that marries the strengths of traditional nursing models – primary nursing and team nursing – is emerging as a promising solution to address the challenges faced by healthcare organizations.

In healthcare’s dynamic and shifting landscape, the role of technology and assistive models is becoming increasingly critical in providing safe, effective patient care while simultaneously alleviating the burdens on nursing staff.

Virtual nursing, a concept that marries the strengths of traditional nursing models – primary nursing and team nursing – is emerging as a promising solution to address the challenges faced by healthcare organizations. In this article, we will delve into the essence of virtual nursing and explore how adopting technology can revolutionize patient care and nursing practices, all while ensuring that nurse leaders are equipped to navigate this transformative journey. Importantly, this model has been shown to enhance both nurse and patient satisfaction while improving financial and operational efficiencies for hospitals.

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The nursing crisis: Staffing, experience, and retention challenges

For decades, the nursing profession has predominantly relied on two models: primary nursing and team nursing. Primary nursing designates a single nurse who assumes the primary responsibility for and coordination of a patient’s care, while team nursing involves a collaborative effort among multiple nurses, including non-licensed personnel. While both models have their merits, they also have their limitations. The healthcare industry now stands at a crossroads, seeking innovative solutions to address staffing shortages, an inexperienced workforce, and issues related to retention. Some estimates put the nursing shortage as high as 400,000 by 2025, greatly jeopardizing patient care and increasing the heavy toll on the nurses who remain in practice.

The need for immediate action to lessen the stress felt by nurses is evidenced in a recent study that spotlights the lack of engagement in the profession. The 2023 National Nursing Engagement Report found:

  • Less than half of U.S. nurses say they are fully engaged at work
  • Another 14.4% say they are “unengaged”
  • Less than 40% of millennial nurses say they are fully engaged.

Compounding the problem is the heavy toll nurses report, especially those earlier in their careers. The American Nursing Association found about one-third of nurse respondents with less than 10 years’ experience indicated being either not or not at all emotionally healthy.

It’s increasingly clear that to solve this problem, we can’t simply rely on replacing people with people – technology must be put in place to offset these shortages and automate tedious tasks that are adding stress and stealing joy from the practice of nursing.

A convergence of best practices

Virtual nursing represents a paradigm shift in the nursing profession, combining the best elements of primary and team nursing to create a novel and effective approach to patient care. It’s a revolutionary concept that has gained significant traction in the healthcare industry, driven by its ability to provide a satisfying experience for both nurses and patients.

Amidst the growing buzz surrounding virtual nursing, various voices and opinions vie for attention. Some claim expertise, while others offer individualized solutions. The noise in the healthcare arena can be deafening, making it essential to cut through the chatter and focus on the core issues that virtual nursing can address.

Technology offers a remedy

Virtual nursing provides a multifaceted solution to a range of pressing challenges. Moreover, virtual nursing programs enable experienced nurses to take on mentorship roles, fostering the professional growth of younger, less-experienced nurses.

Patients, including the elderly, benefit from the personalized one-on-one attention provided by virtual nurses, resulting in fewer incidents requiring higher levels of care and reducing the likelihood of injuries, including fall risk.

To implement virtual nursing effectively, healthcare leaders must decide on the approach that best suits their organization’s needs, whether that involves establishing a centralized command center focusing nurses on specific tasks or deploying the geographical model of virtual nursing with nurses onsite working both on the unit and in the virtual role. A flexible rotation system can serve as a potent retention tool, providing nurses with the opportunity to experience both primary and virtual nursing roles.

Navigating the transition: The role of virtual nurses

Healthcare providers including nurses can sometimes be slow to adopt new technologies. Clinicians like to see a clear roadmap of how to proceed, accompanied by clearly defined expected outcomes. With virtual nursing and AI platform, there is no one-size-fits-all manual.  We must stress that while outside the box, the customization of care models based on best practices is key to success.

One of the key advantages of virtual nursing is its potential to enhance existing workflows and identify areas where tasks can be reallocated or improved. Nursing leaders should encourage innovation and collaboration among their teams to ensure the program’s success. Involving nursing teams in developing the virtual care model and defining the role of the virtual nurse facilitates engagement.

According to the PRC study, nurses are more likely to be fully engaged if they believe they are active participants in decision making about their patients’ care and that their opinions are valued by leadership.

It’s crucial to emphasize that virtual nurses are not intended to replace traditional nursing staff but rather to complement and augment their efforts. The successful integration of virtual nursing requires clear collaboration and trust-building.

Navigating the future: A call to action

Virtual nursing offers a transformative path forward for healthcare organizations facing staffing challenges, retention issues, and the need for improved patient care. Nursing leaders must embrace this innovative approach by proactively seeking solutions and participating in the ongoing conversation about the integration of technology in healthcare.

While regulations surrounding virtual nursing and AI are expected to evolve, healthcare leaders should not wait for directives to be imposed upon them. Instead, they should actively engage in discussions to shape the regulatory landscape, removing the mystique surrounding AI and promoting the adoption of best practices and common-sense guidelines.

By committing to transparency, validation, and collaboration, nursing leaders can pave the way for the successful implementation of AI-powered virtual nursing programs, ultimately benefiting both patients and the dedicated professionals who provide their care.

Photo: Hiraman, Getty Images

Karie Ryan, RN, MS, BSN, is a distinguished Healthcare Executive with over 20 years of leadership experience. Karie excels in clinical operations, patient engagement and innovative solutions. As Chief Nursing Officer at Artisight, Karie spearheads AI-driven care models, revolutionizing healthcare delivery. Her role encompasses implementation frameworks and widespread adoption. Karie, well versed in change management, clinical workflow enhancement and AI integration, continually bridges healthcare and technology, shaping the future of patient care.

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