The nursing shortage isn’t a new issue. What is: Virtual nursing, a technology that could help combat the shortage.

In Arizona, 31.36% of hospitals are experiencing critical staffing shortages, according to Becker’s Hospital Review.

“What tends to be the most critical shortage is often the hospital-based nursing where nurses… are not at the bedside or we have too many patients per nurse in the hospital,” said Dr. Kimberly Shea, Associate Telenursing Director for the Arizona Telemedicine Program (ATP) and clinical professor at the College of Nursing at the University of Arizona.

READ ALSO: Ranking Arizona: Top 10 hospitals for 2022

READ ALSO: Nurses are leaving the workforce faster than they’re joining: Here’s why

The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the shortage, causing more nurses to burnout and eventually leave the industry.

“The pandemic highlighted the challenges faced by the number of nurses we have available for the work,” said Robin Shepherd, the Chief Nursing Officer for Dignity Health Arizona and Nevada.

However, the Memorial Hermann Health System in Texas used virtual nursing, which is a subcategory of telehealth, during the pandemic to help retain and protect nurses.

Telehealth utilizes virtual technology, such as phone calls or video conferences, to help with patient care. Through telenursing, telemonitoring, or remote patient care, nurses can monitor patients from outside the patients’ hospital rooms or at the patients’ homes and still respond effectively to patients’ needs.

When a patient feels sick, telenursing can save them a trip to the emergency room (ER) or hospital.

“The best [way to use remote patient care] would be to prevent the ones that are getting sick from getting to a critical point where they have to come into the hospital. [Instead, they would] be able to be monitored at home,” said Shea.

Jennifer Robinson, Director of the Nurse On-Call program at Banner Health, said that telenursing isn’t about keeping people out of the hospital, only helping the patients and making care more convenient for them.

“It’s not really about keeping people out of the ER or keeping people out of urgent care,” she said. “It’s really aligning the people with where they really need to be because if you don’t need to go to the emergency room, why do you want to pay the high co pays to go there?”

With telemonitoring, all patients must do is gather data, such as blood pressure, and send it off to the home health office where a nurse will look at the data.

“[Patients] just get up in the morning, put the blood pressure cuff on, get on the scale, and it automatically feeds [the data] to software at the home health office where there’s somebody who’s looking for [irregular changes in data],” Shea said.

Telenursing can also relieve the ever-expanding load on in-person nurses. For example, the virtual nurse can meet with the patient and record data that the in-person nurse doesn’t need to be physically present for.

“The virtual nurse and the nurse that’s physically present can [then] go over the findings of the patient and help determine the best plan of care,” Shepherd said. “If we have a challenge with the number of nurses at the bedside, then this virtual nurse can actually relieve some of that workload, [allowing] the nurse who is physically present to do those things a physical presence requires.”

One component of the nursing shortage is that many nurses are approaching retirement age, and telenursing is an opportunity for hospitals to retain an aging and experienced staff.

“[Telenursing] really does allow nurses to stay in the profession longer because we can still utilize them in roles. A lot of your telehealth stuff is done virtually [and] remotely… so people don’t have to be up on their feet 12 hours a day and all of that,” Robinson said. “I think if we could learn to take our aging [nurse] population and those that are getting ready to retire and help backfill some of that, it will help fill the gaps.”

Still, the telehealth world has some developing to do, though providers are hopeful about the future with this virtual technology.

“We will receive telehealth, virtual nursing, telenursing, and I would say other technological advances as an evolution of healthcare not just the short-term solution to a resource shortage,” said Shepherd.