Virtual Nursing: Can a First-of-Its-Kind Hospital Program Help Address Nursing Shortage and Burnout?

Doug Wintemute
Updated October 16, 2023
Edited by
    Nursing shortages and burnouts are serious concerns. Discover how a new virtual nursing program helps take care of the nurses who take care of us.
    Nurse on video call explaining medication to patientCredit: Getty Images
    • St. Anthony Hospital introduced the first virtual nursing program on the West Coast.
    • The program addresses the nurse burnout and nurse shortage crises by providing support and leadership to bedside nurses.
    • Virtual nurses provide patient assistance and communication, while also taking on various administrative duties.

    On May 10, Washington’s Virginia Mason Franciscan Health (VMFH) system launched the Enhanced Collaborative Care Program, a first-of-its-kind virtual nursing program that supplements in-hospital teams with on-demand virtual nursing services.

    The program, which first rolled out at St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor, Washington, allows experienced nurses to interact with patients via in-room screens. While improving patient care, the program also sets its targets on the pressing issues of nurse burnout and nurse shortages.

    “When you’re not worrying about all your patients because you know you have that support, it allows you to have that mental relief and you have that psychological safety,” said Dianne Aroh, RN, VMFH senior vice president and chief nursing officer. “That significantly reduces burnout…We have nurses that are willing to come back to the workforce or to stay in the workforce, but we have to offer them something that’s different.”

    Nurse Shortage and Nurse Burnout: Addressing the Needs

    An aging population and an increased need for medical services are just some of the reasons nurses are in demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the addition of more than 175,000 new registered nursing (RN) positions between 2022 and 2032. There also are nearly 200,000 annual openings resulting from professional turnover.

    Unfortunately, the nation’s nursing programs don’t have the enrollments or educators necessary to keep up with the growing demand. This imbalance has created a significant nursing shortage across the country. To make matters worse, the shortfall puts more pressure and responsibility on the shoulders of active nurses, leading to system-wide nurse burnout.

    In a JAMA Health Form study, 47% of over 15,000 hospital nurses surveyed reported high levels of burnout. A 2023 poll of unionized healthcare workers in Washington state found 79% of them experienced burnout. With its virtual nursing program, VMFH, a network of 10 hospitals and medical centers throughout Washington State, may have found a solution to these issues.

    “When we implemented the program, we had 250 people apply for it,” Aroh explained. “They’re not looking for the traditional care models. They’re looking for something that allows them to have the flexibility that everyone yearns for.”

    Along with flexibility, the program helps make the nursing profession more accommodating and collaborative. “The program is intended to improve the retention of staff by offering increased support to the bedside team and mentorship to newer bedside nurses,” said Jordan Tremper, virtually integrated care division director with CommonSpirit Health, VMFH’s parent company.

    Virtually Integrated Care: How Does It Work?

    Based on the virtually integrated care model, the Enhanced Collaborative Care Program puts live cameras in patient rooms, offering near-instant access to nurses with the touch of a button. Virtual nurses can expedite certain processes, answer patient and family questions, and unburden bedside nurses of other tasks.

    “The program utilizes technology integrated into the acute care patient room that acts as a virtual door into the patient room that allows the virtual nurse to ring a virtual doorbell and request permission to enter the room,” Tremper explained. “The virtual nurse purposefully rounds on each patient during their shift. They directly support the bedside care team by delivering patient and family education, facilitating virtual family visits, completing admissions and discharges, mentoring new nurses, and collaborating on specialty services.”

    By unbinding nurses from travel and time constraints, the virtual program allows them to monitor patients and collaborate with bedside nurses more easily. For hospital management, better professional accommodation and support should help with nurse retention and staffing. For the patients, virtual nursing improves stay lengths, care plan management, and education.

    Already, the program has shown positive results. St. Anthony Hospital has witnessed enhanced patient experiences, reduced falls, and improved patient outcomes. While the virtually integrated care team measures other positive indicators, such as patient satisfaction and staff satisfaction, Tremper suggested that “the ultimate test of success is whether or not our bedside team members feel as though we are delivering real felt value both to them and to the patients we collectively care for.”

    In October, VMFH continued the Enhanced Collaborative Care Program rollout to another hospital on the roster — St. Anne Hospital in Burien, Washington. In the coming years, the program will expand into the other VMFH locations throughout the state.

    If all goes well, virtual nursing might reshape the health system as we know it. While hands-on nursing will also play a central role in healthcare, virtual programs could make significant improvements to nurse-to-patient communication and accessibility. A future with widespread virtual nursing programs could make it easier for hospitals to build, support, and retain nursing teams.

    By adopting virtual nursing programs like the Enhanced Collaborative Care Program, hospitals can give back to the nursing profession that gives so much to so many.