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How Telehealth Medical Are Can Help Solve The U.S. Nursing Shortage

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The U.S. health care system faces a critical shortage of nurses in the coming years as the nation's Baby Boomer population continues to age and more than a half-million experienced registered nurses transition into retirement.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the U.S. will need more than 1 million new registered nurses to replace those retiring and to reverse the expected nursing shortage. 

In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, patients and health care professionals have embraced telehealth medical services as an alternative to in-person doctor visits. Last year as medical offices faced closures during the pandemic, telehealth medical services increased to 46 percent from the previous year's 11 percent, according to Dr. Joseph C. Kvedar, a Harvard Medical School professor and president of the American Telemedicine Association. This increasingly popular method of medical care is also considered a solution to the U.S. nursing problem. The fact is nurses can serve more patients through telehealthcare programs and reduce the burden on in-office visits to doctors.

Patients are more comfortable using telehealth services

The idea is to use the workforce of available nurses in a more efficient way. In the U.S., more patients have become comfortable using telehealth services to access medical care. When asked if they are comfortable communicating with health care providers through email, text, or video, 70 percent of respondents said they are comfortable with this remote access to a provider instead of seeing them in person, according to a survey by the American Hospital Association. The survey on the use of telehealth nursing services also revealed that 76 percent of the respondents said they give a higher priority to access to health care than a desire for in-person interaction with a medical provider.

How telehealth nursing helps the health care industry

Expanded use of telehealth nursing services is expected to help the health care industry in a number of ways, including reducing patient costs by decreasing the number of emergency room visits and hospital admissions. Telehealth nursing services also can be used to manage chronic illness, thus reducing the patient load on already crowded doctors' offices and hospitals.

But the biggest benefit that medical providers see with telehealth nursing services is the relief it will provide to a workforce already stretched too thinly. Nurses can care for more patients more quickly through telehealth services, identifying those who truly are in need of in-person care and referring them for immediate treatment while managing many other patients more efficiently remotely.

The opportunities to expand telehealth nursing services will provide flexibility that could attract more providers, allowing nurses to work anywhere they want as long as they have access to the internet, video, and a computer. Service for patients also is improved and more convenient, eliminating the need for travel, long wait times in doctors' offices, and rushed appointments to accommodate the backlog of patients.

Why telehealth benefits nurses

Telehealth also provides nurses with more opportunities for professional development. Unlike traditional health care jobs where nurses are assigned to serve specific departments, telehealth allows a nurse to practice in multiple disciplines remotely in different areas of medicine. They also can learn remotely about new medical treatments and therapies, expand their knowledge of the standard of care in different areas of medicine, and share that knowledge with patients.

Telehealth is considered a better way to develop relationships with patients through more extensive conversations that are not as rushed as in-person appointments can be. Those remote appointments between nurse and patient can provide a better forum to discuss medical issues and to educate the patient with fewer interruptions and distractions that typically occur in a traditional appointment inside a medical office. Telehealth nursing also provides patients with greater access to nurses for long-term health care needs. 

Caution urged in expanding telehealth nursing services

While many medical providers advocate for expanded use of telehealth nursing services, some organizations caution that refinements are needed in this high-growth health care service. The practice of telehealth nursing needs well-established guidelines and protocols that can add better structure to the practice, particularly in the area of skilled nursing services, according to Tammy Tuminaro, the CEO of Baton Rouge, La.-based Century Rehabilitation. During the pandemic, certain types of therapists, including speech and occupational therapists, were able to serve patients isolated by state-ordered lockdowns through telehealth.

Telehealth offered therapists an opportunity to connect with patients in locked-down facilities. But providers soon realized that another health care professional needed to be in the room with the patient to complete the appointment. In those cases, new reimbursement rules must be developed to compensate providers for those services, which could be more expensive through telehealth, Tuminaro argued.

It's also important to establish a protocol requiring documentation of patient consent to serve them remotely through telehealth, she said.

Charting a new path for telehealth nursing

While health care providers will have to proceed carefully, there is no doubt that telehealth nursing will continue to gain in popularity among health care professionals and patients. More telehealth nursing services are being provided each day as major medical companies and health insurers expand their offerings to meet the demands of patients who are eager to access the service. Many insurers are providing the service at a free or reduced rate as an alternative to the traditional doctor visit.

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