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Trinity Health implements virtual nurse program to address nurse shortage

Posted at 6:21 PM, Feb 08, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-08 22:46:12-05

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (WXYZ) — For 79-year-old Jim Hunter, it’s been 2 weeks in the hospital at Trinity Health Ann Arbor. While registered nurse Jeanne Patton is there for physical care, another registered nurse Kayla, provides virtual care.

It’s part of the "TogetherTeam Virtual Connected Care" program that’s been in place for almost 3 months at the Ann Arbor hospital. 66 rooms across 2 units are equipped with the technology, while 2 to 3 virtual nurses work out of a control room in the building. That equates to about 22 patients during the day, and 33 at night per virtual nurse. The virtual nurse is in addition, not in replace of, a physical Registered Nurse and a Licensed Practical Nurse for each patient.

"I think it's a big game changer,” said virtual RN Amy Koil. "When I first heard about virtual nursing I was a little resistant because of the overall nursing shortage. My thought was we need physical bodies at the bedside not necessarily someone on a camera.”

Koil worked more than a decade in the ICU but is now one of the first virtual nurses in the Ann Arbor hospital. She says the job is less physically demanding but still rewarding. She can talk with patients and even zoom into details with her camera to diagnose problems.

“If somebody puts their call light on and says 'my IV is hurting' we can zoom in on that area and see is it infiltrated, is it leaking, is it partially pulled out," explained Koil.

A few months ago, Jamie Farmer’s 77-year-old father was one of the first patients to have a virtual nurse. He’s since been discharged from the hospital but Jamie, who’s also a nurse at the hospital, says it made a positive difference in his care.

“We felt like the speed his call light was answered, we felt like we had more eyes on him and when we would come in to get updates the virtual nurse would come on to give us updates right away,” Farmer said.

The hospital's Chief Nursing Officer Katy Hoffman says all virtual nurses are RNs with at least 8 years of experience. She says they are averaging about 300 connections with patients per day.

“For our patients, its really about having a whole 'nother caregiver available to you to help in whatever that need may be, in addition to your bedside nurse,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman says the job provides more opportunity for experienced RNs to stay in nursing rather than retire, and their support helps avoid burnout for younger RNs.

Patton says she felt that burnout from a previous job.

“It is an extreme issue," said Patton. "It's an issue I think every nurse is dealing with at some point.”

Patton says before having a virtual nurse she handled about 3-5 patients a day, but now she is handling 5-6 patients per day. She says despite having more patients, the workload hasn't increased with help from the virtual RN.

“A bit less to about same, but it's a different type of workload," Patton said of the work. “When I get a new patient, they do a lot of the admission questions and admission period and that saves me a whole lot of time."

In a statement, RN James Walker, who is a Michigan Nurses Association Board Member, said “Virtual nursing’s impact on patient safety has not been sufficiently studied, and Michigan patients should not be treated as guinea pigs. Patients deserve to have a nurse in the room, not a nurse on the iPad. Time and again, healthcare executives who make millions try to find shortcuts to save money rather than focusing on listening to nurses and prioritizing safe patient care. Government data has consistently shown that there is no shortage of nurses – only a shortage of RNs willing to work under the conditions that hospital executives have created. Nurses will always advocate to make sure that patients come before profits.”

"If someone watching this were to say instead of investing in that (virtual nursing), it could go to RN salaries and that could solve the problem. What would you say to that?" 7 Action News reporter Brett Kast asked Hoffman.

"Raising RN salaries is great and I'm not going to argue against raising RN salaries, but what I'm going to say is that doesn't create more nurses today,” said Hoffman. "We know what the numbers look like, we know what schools produce every year in terms of new nurses and we know what the gap is today, so doing nothing is not a strategy.”

Trinity is currently testing out the program in a few units at a few different hospitals, with a goal of potentially expanding it system-wide.