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The COVID-19 pandemic transformed the healthcare industry, including how health systems coped with the ongoing shortage of qualified registered nurses. Dramatic surges in patient volumes led to hospitals bringing in travel nurses at unprecedented rates, hiking the demand for contract nurses by at least 35% over pre-pandemic levels.

Health systems had to take quick action to cover the gaps. Many hired travel nurses, but it wasn’t the ideal solution to the problem. The salary disparities were unsustainable and inflammatory for health systems, drawing sharp criticism from employed nurses doing the same jobs for significantly less money.

The resentment affected both employed and contracted nurses, further eroded morale in a challenging time, and even prompted some employed nurses to leave their positions and take up more lucrative travel spots, perpetuating the cycle of staffing shortfalls.

Now that the Public Health Emergency has ended, reimbursement and demand have returned to more realistic levels, leaving travel nurses feeling burned out, expendable, and unsure of what comes next in their careers – while leaving health systems still lacking the nurses they need to provide safe, high-quality patient care.

Healthcare organizations need a different solution to the nursing shortage that doesn’t rely on flying in professionals in response to sudden spikes in need. Virtual nursing is that solution.

In addition to providing an attractive career alternative for travel nurses looking for a new role, virtual nurses offer the best of both worlds for health systems: they are available when and where they’re needed, yet they aren’t strangers to the organization or a perceived threat to employed nursing staff.

Instead, virtual nurses utilize advanced telehealth technology to provide expert assistance with complex clinical tasks, such as care in the ICU or emergency room, and more routine needs, like giving discharge instructions and answering questions from patients or caregivers.

Nurses are brought into the environment via wall screens or telehealth carts with high-definition audio/visual equipment. In addition, some nursing stations in the virtual care center (such as Critical Care ICU) are connected to telemetry feeds and other data streams to enable off-site nurses to watch patients and their vital signs continuously.

This frees on-site staff to focus on building relationships and delivering hands-on care – all while knowing their remote colleagues have their back if they need extra support.

The result is an environment less likely to breed burnout and more likely to help all nurses feel as if they are maximizing their skills and working together as a coordinated team. It represents the start of creating an organizational culture that minimizes turnover and supports safe and effective patient care.

Virtual nursing won’t be able to solve the massive shortage of RNs completely. Still, the strategy offers a more sustainable and potentially less controversial alternative to relying too heavily on travel nurses.

As health systems seek innovative ways to trim unnecessary spending while supporting optimal patient care, virtual command centers could improve patient care and sustain workforce morale without breaking the bank.

Heidi Merriman
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