Saint Luke’s strategy to combat the nursing shortage

Recruiting and retaining nurses has been an ongoing challenge for many hospitals and health systems and one that was no doubt exacerbated throughout the pandemic. To maximize staff and increase efficiency, Kansas City-based Saint Luke’s Health System opened a virtual nursing unit that allows nurses to remotely interact with patients and handle much of the administrative work that can contribute to stress and burnout.

“Even prior to the pandemic, we knew we had to meet the future need for nursing care. We needed a better way to not only improve nurse satisfaction and staff retention but patient satisfaction, specifically with their hospital experience,” says Jennifer Ball, RN, Director of Virtual Care at Saint Luke’s Health System. Ball outlined Saint Luke’s experience with and approach to virtual nursing during a session at Forum 2022.

What is a virtual nursing unit?

Anyone who has spent time in a hospital or health system setting knows that nurses often wear many hats and juggle numerous tasks on a day-to-day basis. As the backbone of patient care, nurses have the most contact with patients and their families, are responsible for administrative work and assist with various patient requests, even those unrelated to clinical care.

Saint Luke’s virtual nursing unit is designed to lessen the administrative workload for bedside nurses, giving them more time to focus on providing high-quality clinical care. Located in the organization’s technology center, the virtual nursing team is available to patients through an in-room telehealth solution. Virtual nurses are supplemental to the bedside nursing team, are available to answer patient questions, review care plans with both the patient and their family, mentor bedside nurses and facilitate both admissions and discharges, among many other tasks.

The addition of a virtual nursing unit does alter the nurse-patient ratio, with one additional patient per bedside nurse, but the change is manageable, as much of the administrative burden has been lifted.

How does it work?

Upon admission, patients are informed of the in-room telehealth solution and how and when to contact the virtual nurse. After hitting the call button, the virtual nurse answers and is beamed into the hospital room via the television screen, immediately available to assist that patient.

“Our patients love it because the virtual nurses can usually answer within a minute or less. This is great, as it not only takes the heat off the bedside nurse but allows the bedside nurses to respond faster for hands-on care.”

Another benefit is the consistent coverage provided by the virtual nurse unit. If the nurse being called is busy, another nurse within the virtual nurse unit can pick up the message to assist.

The real impact of virtual nursing

Saint Luke’s continues to experience and learn the benefits of virtual nursing, from increased patient safety to process improvement. The virtual nurses essentially act as a second pair of eyes for the bedside nurse, helping ensure quality patient care and helping to prevent adverse health events.

There has been a clear impact on both patient and nurse satisfaction since the unit’s inception in 2019. Relationships develop and grow between patient and virtual staff, and between virtual and bedside staff as well.

“The nurses on the virtual unit have a plethora of knowledge and experience, and a lot of them end up acting as mentors to some of the greener bedside nurses, typically those on the night shift. They are available to walk bedside nurses through some of the tasks and answer questions as needed.”

The biggest impact seen by Saint Luke’s is the improvement in the discharge process. The night shift virtual nurses can go through the record to make sure everything is done and in place prior to the morning, so if a patient is to be discharged the next day, they can be out by 8 a.m. Overall, Saint Luke’s is seeing patients discharged an average of two hours earlier.

Getting everyone on the same page

Saint Luke’s knew in order to realize the true value of virtual nursing, it needed everyone to rally together behind the cause. From day one, there has been a strong emphasis on team building.

“Virtual nursing is not an ‘us vs. them’ attitude. We are a team, and we all work together to take care of the patient.”

For training, both teams ran through multiple patient scenarios. Saint Luke’s leadership solicited feedback from nurses, and they continue to hold ongoing training sessions and joint staff meetings to ensure solid communication and process improvements.

A new model of care

The success of the virtual nursing unit at Saint Luke’s is realized both within and outside of the health system. Many nurses at Saint Luke’s now request to work in the virtual unit. Additionally, there are plans to replicate the model for other services, such as critical access facilities, and expand to other use cases, including pharmacy, social work, dietary and chronic care management. Additionally, many health systems across the country are looking to Saint Luke’s for inspiration as they consider implementing their own virtual nursing units.

Don’t miss a single moment from the event. Get more insights on the future of virtual care from Forum 2022.