Can virtual nursing help ease clinician burnout?

No hospital or health system is immune from the challenges of the nationwide nursing shortage. As organizations look for ways to reduce the administrative burden on nurses and improve engagement and satisfaction, virtual nursing is one consideration.

Many tasks performed by nurses in the inpatient setting are repetitive – a virtual nursing unit allows nurses to manage these tasks remotely. Bedside nurses and staff then are freed up to focus on patient-facing care, while those in the virtual unit can monitor patients, enter data in the medical record and more.

To better understand the ins and outs of virtual nursing, we interviewed Dr. Shayan Vyas, senior vice president and medical director for hospitals and health systems at Teladoc Health.

Q. What is the national nursing shortage like today? How does it play out in hospitals and health systems?

A. Every health system I’ve spoken with, that we work with, says workforce challenges are among the top three issues keeping them up at night. This is particularly true for nursing staff. In 2021, nurses were leaving the profession at an alarming rate. According to NSI Nursing Solutions, the turnover rate for nurses increased by 8.4% in 2021 and currently stands at 27%.

An increase in patient volume and occupancy rates, among other factors, have led to severe emotional and physical exhaustion and, ultimately, job dissatisfaction and burnout. A 2021 McKinsey survey found that 32% of nurses were likely to leave their current position due to insufficient staffing levels, a lack of support and the emotional toll of the job.

President Obama once said that “nurses are the heartbeat of the United States healthcare system,” and I really believe that to be true. They put their lives on the line to serve and care for others every single day, and we need to give them the tools to more effectively, efficiently and safely care for others and save lives.

Virtual care offers new strategies to address these challenges; virtual nursing is an important component that health systems can include in their transformation and care delivery redesign initiatives.

Q. What is virtual nursing, and how does it work?

A. Virtual nursing, simply put, is the delivery of nursing care and services from a remote location. Virtual nurses are responsible for monitoring multiple patients while collaborating with the nurses, physicians, therapists and other staff who provide care at the patient’s bedside.

The virtual nursing unit can be centralized (for example, nurses work from a command center in a healthcare facility), distributed (nurses work from home or other remote locations) or hybrid.

Adopting virtual nursing provides a way to mitigate potential staffing losses due to short-term injury or other conditions that require nurses to be off their feet. It is also a way to extend nurses’ careers, for example, by offering nurses with developing or chronic physical limitations the option of working seated in a command center, instead of providing physically challenging care on a nursing unit.

Virtual nursing programs also can help attract nurses by providing different options for shifts and work styles. This model supports organizations by enabling them to have virtual nurses work from anywhere – allowing them to provide much-needed care and services without requiring nurses to relocate so that they live close enough to a hospital to be able to go on-site for their shift.

It also helps new nurses with clinical support, medication verifications and overall non-physical patient bedside care assistance.

Health systems that have created virtual nursing programs to augment their bedside nurses have found virtual nursing can extend nurses’ careers and improve job satisfaction for floor nurses by taking away responsibility for many tasks that do not require physical touch.

This allows the bedside nurse to focus on hands-on patient care and contributes to higher patient satisfaction because of the responsiveness and additional attentiveness it enables. 

Virtual nursing can also allow advanced nurse practitioners like PAs and ARNPs the ability to connect virtually with a virtual intensivist, and the virtual nurse can help with many of the nonphysical contact needs of patient care.

Q. How can virtual nursing reduce the administrative burden on nurses and improve engagement and satisfaction?

A. While hands-on care will always be needed, many duties can be fulfilled virtually, including coordinating procedures, getting sign-offs from multiple care team members, reconciling medications, providing patient education, answering questions, initiating the discharge process and more.

In many successful virtual nursing programs, administrative tasks like discharge paperwork, medication reconciliation, etc., have been shifted from bedside to virtual nurses. Virtual nursing systems enable virtual nurses to monitor patients and communicate with them, their families, and other visitors and care team members in real time, including responding to patient nurse calls.

The goal is to provide a new level of support to patients, nurses and the bedside team.

Several health systems with virtual nursing programs have reported high job satisfaction for their virtual nurses. Nurses say the virtual role enables them to spend more time with patients overall. The extra time, and the complementary nature of virtual and bedside nursing roles, contributes to improved job satisfaction for both bedside and virtual nurses, and positive experiences for patients.

Q. Please talk a bit about one of your hospital clients using virtual nursing and the results they’ve achieved.

A. Overall, the benefits of virtual nursing include staffing flexibility, potential retention and recruitment advantages, the ability to leverage staff resources, and favorable nurse and patient satisfaction. Another major benefit of virtual nursing is a reduced length of stay, resulting in improved throughput, as well as time saved in the discharge process.

Some lesser-known benefits of virtual nursing are a differentiated and improved patient experience, with potential associated improvements to patient satisfaction and HCAHPS and NPS scores. Patients also are seeing a significant improvement in satisfaction as they no longer have to pull a bedside staff member to help answer questions or assist with administrative documentation.

Our client, Saint Luke’s Health System in Kansas City, Missouri, has helped address the nursing shortage by having virtual nurses support bedside nurses. The virtual nurses can assist with non-hands-on care, education, documentation, admission, discharge, answering questions, and reviewing the care plan or physician rounding with the patient and their loved ones, among other tasks.

The unit has enhanced Saint Luke’s bedside care response rates, increased patient and nurse satisfaction, reduced the burden on bedside nurses, and positively impacted quality and safety for a better work environment. Patients are discharged within two hours of the discharge order, some 20% faster than in other units, and they’re also out of the hospital before noon at a 44% faster rate.

This has, in turn, reduced the wait time for patients in the ED and reduces the time to treatment. What’s more, these benefits have boosted nurse morale, improving workforce engagement, reducing fatigue, even improving Saint Luke’s recruitment capabilities.

We need to provide nurses, our frontline workers, with technology that improves their work, quality of life, and the level and effectiveness of bedside care.

Twitter: @SiwickiHealthIT


Email the writer: bsiwicki@himss.org


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