Can Virtual Nursing Help Hospitals Address Workforce Challenges?

By Eric Wicklund

When OSF HealthCare encountered problems hiring nurses for its med-surg units, executives decided to launch a virtual nursing program to fill the gaps and improve nurse morale and efficiency.

“That’s one of the hardest positions to fill,” says Kelly George, the Illinois-based health system’s vice president of performance improvement. “And we were seeing that a lot of our nurses [were dealing with] a heavy workload. We decided that we would try anything we could do to better support the staff that we have.”

With workforce shortages across the board, from nurses to doctors to IT and support staff, health system leaders are leveraging a number of strategies to improve the workplace, reduce stress and turnover, and entice more people into the industry.

HealthLeaders is convening a select number of the industry’s top decision-makers next week in Nashville to address clinical and financial approaches to workforce shortages. The two-day HealthLeaders Teams Exchange will feature panel discussions on four topics: Strategic workforce planning, recruiting and retaining clinical talent, workforce innovation and technology, and physician alignment and partnerships (including nurse staffing and scheduling).

OSF HealthCare is one of several health systems across the country to explore virtual nursing platforms to stabilize the workforce (among them are Jefferson Health in Philadelphia, Michigan-based Trinity Health, and Nashville’s Vanderbilt Health, all of which recently announced new programs). George says OSF looked to other health systems for guidance and found that many are at the same stage of development.

“It’s still very early for everyone,” she says.

Indeed, inpatient telemedicine programs were popular during the pandemic, as health systems sought to separate infected patient populations from doctors and nurses to curtail the spread of the virus. Virtual platforms were also effective in monitoring multiple patients, rooms, or even departments from one location, like a nurse’s station, giving hospital administrators a means of doing more with a depleted staff.

The challenge for healthcare decision-makers with these platforms is ROI. Telemedicine programs aren’t exactly inexpensive, and CEOs and CFOs need to see the hard benefits to a new program before signing off.

At the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston, officials tested a virtual nursing service about a year ago, says Emily Warr, MSN, RN, administrator for the health system’s Center for Telehealth. That program was geared toward helping new nurses learn the ropes.

So MUSC pivoted, creating a platform designed not only to remotely monitor patients in their rooms but to help with administrative tasks, from charting in the EMR to onboarding and discharges. That program will debut soon in four of the health system’s rural hospitals, where the nursing ranks are especially strained.

“This program can’t just focus on workforce economics or quality [of care],” she says. “One is not enough. There has to be a quality component. We’ve got to impact patient care.”

At OSF HealthCare, George says the virtual nursing program will be closely watched by executives, and that clinical outcomes have to be included in the ROI, alongside nurse retention and satisfaction.

“We recognize that we have to be able to show the value,” she says.

Kelly George is a contributor to the HealthLeaders Teams Exchange Community. Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, Telehealth, Supply Chain and Pharma for HealthLeaders.