Nursing has quickly become one of the hottest areas for virtual care delivery, and nurses are eager and willing to work in these settings. Many healthcare facilities are finding new use cases for telehealth nursing that are both cost-effective and efficient. While it’s true that incorporating nurses into virtual care has its challenges, they are well worth tackling — both for the benefit of the patient and provider alike.
Embracing virtual nursing
Prior to the pandemic, very few organizations used virtual nurses outside of the old-school nurse hotline setting. This changed when hospitals began using virtual nurses to offload simple, routine tasks during peak periods to maximize their patient care team. Things like intake, discharge, simple charting, and other basic tasks were outsourced to large, virtual nursing pools. This freed up staff nurses to focus on in-person patient care where they were needed the most.
Interest in virtual nursing has only accelerated since. Hospitals are discovering more and more use cases for telehealth and nursing, some of which are outgrowing the flexibility and scalability of the virtual nursing pool model. As a result, many healthcare organizations are finding ways to incorporate full-time virtual nurses into their floor units. This integration is enabled by new hardware and software solutions that facilitate seamless workflow between virtual and in-person nurses.
Until recently, telehealth nursing was really all about phone calls: following up after hospital care, providing patient education, and sharing test results. The investment healthcare facilities made in telehealth technology during the pandemic has opened new workflows and use cases for virtual nursing.
On one end of the spectrum are the simple, routine tasks — intakes and discharges, for example — which are easily completed by virtual nurses. On the other end of the spectrum are the direct patient care tasks that need to be performed in person. In the middle are high-skill tasks that can be performed remotely with the use of technology.
Most electronic medical record systems now have functionality that allows rounding to be done virtually. Additionally, hardware has been embedded into many hospital rooms that enables remote patient monitoring in real time. Nurses can communicate with the patient and access data from monitoring devices.
In fact, this remote monitoring — sometimes called telesitting — has accelerated development of the hospital-at-home model. With technology placed in their homes, patients can be discharged earlier and monitored remotely by a virtual nurse. This can also help avoid trips to the hospital for follow-up care.
On a larger scale, virtual nursing may support health and wellness initiatives for payors, managed care organizations, and public health organizations, with nurses becoming an extension of a disease management model.
Making virtual nursing cost-effective
Virtual physician care is billable, making telehealth visits with a physician a revenue generator. But the economic model is not as straightforward when it comes to telehealth and nurses. For virtual nursing, it’s all about realizing efficiencies and cost savings.
Moving nursing workflows into the virtual environment can save costs. First, it can save overtime expenses as the virtual team takes pressure off the in-person workforce. Second, it can reduce travel costs when using temporary travel nurses to cover gaps — nurses can work remotely, rather than travel to the location. Third, virtual nursing can help facilitate discharges, freeing up beds for new patients. And fourth, covering care gaps with virtual nurses can keep beds open, helping to maintain patient volumes.
Challenges of virtual nursing
Potential use cases for virtual nursing are becoming clear, but most organizations are still figuring out how to implement it in their departments. Many are hesitant to really embrace telehealth nursing, while others are jumping in with the knowledge that they’re going to have to adapt on the fly as new challenges arise.
One challenge is that workflows have not been completely mapped yet, and the kinks still need to be smoothed out. Another is that, in some cases, nursing units have been slow to adopt it as a natural part of their workflow. Plus, not all patients are comfortable with virtual nursing — some still expect to see someone face-to-face in a hospital setting.
Finally, cost remains a barrier — particularly if a facility hasn’t yet invested in virtual technology in their hospital rooms. And because the cost of the virtual nurse can’t be broken out by transaction, the use case needs to be very solid in order to realize cost savings or other efficiencies.
Staffing telehealth with travel nurses
For some of the more transactional nursing tasks, a virtual nursing pool may be adequate. However, nurses in a virtual pool are not really part of the core care team.
In some instances, travel nurses may be a better fit for supporting virtual care, particularly when you need a full-time resource integrated within the unit. Travel nursing works best for virtual nursing when you want to have clinical oversight, need the nurses to use your software systems, and you want them to become part of the care delivery team for an extended period.
Travel nurses typically thrive in an integrated virtual model: they’re agile and adaptable and used to hitting the ground running in new situations. Plus, many travel nurses are licensed in a majority of U.S. states with a compact nursing license, making it easy to plug them into health systems that cross state lines.
Virtual nursing is the future of virtual care
Virtual nursing is still in its infancy, but nurses will play an integral role as virtual care becomes more widely adopted. Although no one has entirely figured out how to make it operate well at scale, the use cases are becoming clearer. Expanding the role of nurses in your telehealth program can help optimize workflow for your in-person care team; allow staff nurses to focus more on rewarding, high-value work; and relieve pressure on overstretched units. Healthcare facilities that figure out how to best leverage nurses as part of their virtual care program will be the winners with both patients and their workforce alike.