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Modern nursing looks little like it did even a few decades ago. Today’s registered nurses hold greater authority than ever before. They’re charged with everything from performing diagnostic tests to administering treatments. The pace of change, although already swift, is about to pick up again as telehealth takes over the medical profession.

As health care providers seek new solutions to handle the unique needs of today’s vulnerable patients, many look to virtual nurses to bridge the gap. Their goal: to address a variety of patient concerns without requiring them to visit clinics in person. This can alleviate numerous issues, including limited access in remote settings, the potential spread of disease within clinics or hospitals, and the sheer cost of meeting all patients in person regardless of the scope or urgency of their concerns.

Virtual nursing is increasingly common, and yet, many aspiring nurses still wonder: What is telehealth nursing—and what role will digital services play in the future of nursing? A greater understanding of the latest telehealth opportunities can ensure that nurses enter the profession fully equipped to take on a variety of challenges, both in person and on a virtual basis.

What Is a Virtual Nurse?

As its name implies, virtual nursing involves health care from afar. While some clinics offer phone-based services, digital options such as videoconferencing are increasingly preferred. Regardless of the technology relied upon, however, this approach allows nurses to provide key services without meeting patients in person.

From checking vitals to making specialist referrals, telehealth nurses serve nearly as many functions as their in-person counterparts. Meanwhile, they assist both patients and fellow health care professionals in navigating cutting-edge technology, all with the interest of making virtual appointments as streamlined and personable as possible.

Why Is Telehealth Nursing So Popular?

A variety of factors can be credited with the recent rise of telehealth nursing. While coronavirus and the need for social distancing have played a key role in this niche’s explosive growth, virtual options were already on the rise long before COVID-19 took over. This option has long been regarded as a viable solution for vulnerable patients at risk of suffering influenza or hospital-acquired infections.

Telehealth also presents a wonderful opportunity for serving rural communities that lack reliable access to health care. Patients who need to travel extensively for routine checkups are less likely to seek preventative care. If telehealth services are available, however, these otherwise reluctant patients may seek the proactive assistance needed to solve future health problems. Telehealth may also be of value when ICU beds are unavailable.

Another key area of opportunity in telehealth? Treating patients with mental health concerns. While these patients often benefit greatly from in-person interactions, they may struggle to leave the house in pursuit of traditional care. In some situations, patients diagnosed with depression or anxiety may find it easier and more comfortable to interact with nurses over the phone or via videoconferencing. In such situations, every effort must be made to encourage patients to pursue the treatment they require.

Virtual Nursing: A Day in the Life

As with conventional nursing, telehealth can look considerably different from one day to the next. Still, this setup tends to be more structured than many nursing roles, as the very technology required for telehealth necessitates strict scheduling. Some flexibility may be required, however, as many telehealth nurses are placed on call to handle patient concerns as they arise.

The unique life of a telehealth nurse is accurately conveyed in an article published in the journal Home Healthcare Now. In this insightful piece, registered nurses Colleen Zahs and Mary Hagen explain the ins and outs of working for dedicated telehealth programs, through which they monitor as many as 200 patients per month. As this article highlights, a ‘typical’ day in telehealth nursing could include:

  • Assisting patients in reading and analyzing food labels.
  • Reviewing patient vital information.
  • Responding to answers from patient surveys.
  • Helping patients navigate telemonitoring programs.

While most virtual nursing functions take place online or over the phone, some elements of care may occur in person. Likewise, although many virtual nurses are able to spend some of their time working from home, they may also frequent specialized facilities or traditional clinics to follow up on patient results or handle necessary equipment.

Banner Health clinical care nurse Alice Sneed tells Philips that she primarily operates within an eICU unit equipped with several split screens that attach to patient monitors. This allows her to serve patients staying at remote hospitals that lack ICU capacity. As monitoring equipment improves, such solutions may become more common for handling urgent care needs.

Top Challenges in Virtual Nursing

Although telehealth offers a variety of exciting possibilities, these are accompanied by several notable challenges. Communication, in particular, can be difficult, as many patients struggle to build trusting relationships when they exclusively interact online. Likewise, the higher volume of patients associated with virtual nursing can make it tough for RNs to connect with patients.

While some telehealth nurses thrive on new technology, this represents a huge area of struggle for others. The pace of change is dizzying, with new equipment and applications constantly unveiled. These developments make it possible to better serve patients in need, but they can be difficult to master, even for nurses who think of themselves a technologically savvy.

Education Requirements for Success as a Virtual Nurse

While telehealth presents considerable challenges, these are far from impossible to mitigate. Many of the field’s chief difficulties can be addressed through quality training that takes both clinical and technological considerations into account. Ideally, academic programs will highlight the very real possibility that students will ultimately serve patients in a digital capacity—and prepare them accordingly.

Virtual nurses must meet all the academic and training requirements set in place for registered nurses in general. This includes passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) at the RN level. Depending on the facility or the state in which a given nurse practices, a Bachelor of Science in Nursing may also be advisable. Some telehealth programs require nurses to undergo specialized training prior to serving in a digital capacity.

Given the tech-oriented nature of virtual nursing, the knowledge and skills needed to excel in this niche clearly go beyond those required for conventional practice. Virtual nurses must be comfortable with operating videoconferencing platforms, eICU equipment, and a variety of other advanced programs or apparatus. Because security represents a growing concern, they must be capable of handling medical applications without compromising patient privacy. All this can be a lot to take on, but targeted coursework within RN-BSN programs can set the stage for success, regardless of future changes to health care technology.

If you’re passionate about the latest technological opportunities in the health care industry, you may be a good fit for the rapidly expanding field of telehealth nursing. This is your chance to make your mark on the medical field of tomorrow.