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Virtual nursing positions grow across CT, in effort to retain nurses and boost patient care

Elder patient using laptop in hospital ward bed on video call for pain treatment from surgery.
Dragos Condrea
iStockphoto / Getty Images
Hospital administrators say virtual nurses also have an impact on patient well-being and help enhance a hospital’s ability to get patients discharged sooner from the acute phase to their next level of care.

Kia Serrano loved working as a nurse in the fast-paced environment of a hospital’s intensive care unit.

“You're constantly moving, you're bending, you're lifting, you're turning, you're caring for your patient,” Serrano said.

But after the nurse at Yale New Haven Hospital injured her hip and could no longer work, Bridgeport Hospital, part of the Yale group, created a virtual nursing position for her as an experiment.

A year later, Serrano, 37, heads a team of six hybrid nurses. The team works at the bedside and online to improve patient outcomes.

Serrano and her team collaborate with the on-site nurses by handling intake, check-ins with patients and liaising with families. The virtual team also handles discharge, which allows on-site nurses to focus on care that can only be delivered in person.

Nationwide, hospital administrators say health care organizations are under pressure as the demand for nurses outpaces a shrinking workforce. Nurses are retiring earlier as a result of burnout, or are switching to less demanding careers.

The Bridgeport Hospital virtual nursing alternative is aimed at extending nursing careers and reducing the administrative duties of bedside nurses.

Virtual nurses also have an impact on patient well-being. The positions help to enhance the hospital’s ability to get patients discharged sooner from the acute phase to their next level of care, hospital administrators said. That frees up beds quicker, allowing patients waiting to get admitted sooner.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bridgeport Hospital equipped inpatient rooms to support telehealth. “We are able to use our already established technology to meet nurse’s needs, further improve patient care, and patient flow,” Andy Quito, director of Patient Care Operations, said. “Our team is excited to continue refining and growing the program.”

Since April of 2023, Bridgeport Hospital’s virtual nursing team has had more than 3,000 video visits with patients and their families.

“And I love it,” Serrano said. “It's a dream to be able to still be useful even though, you know, I can't physically be there for the patient.”

Yale New Haven Hospital, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and Greenwich Hospital — part of Yale New haven Health — are following suit.

“We currently have nine fully trained virtual RNs, with four more to be onboarded within the next two months,” said Fiona Phelan of Yale. “Goal is to have a total of 18 virtual RNs to expand to nine medical and surgical units.”

Trinity Health of New England is also looking at expanding the virtual nursing model beyond Saint Mary’s Hospital in Waterbury and Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford.

“We implemented a new team care delivery model to improve patient care. The care team includes an experienced virtual RN and bedside care colleagues,” said Kaitlin Rocheleau of Trinity Health. “This unique model offers a new local virtual role for the experienced nurse to care for patients, coordinate complex care and provide mentoring to early career nurses.”

Patients and families will see a difference in care with more time available from the virtual nurse to explain care plans and medications and answer questions, Rocheleau said.

Serrano, the virtual nurse at Bridgeport Hospital, said the shift is also benefiting nurses – by extending their careers.

“You have the experience, and you have the knowledge, the wisdom that you want to provide,” Serrano said. “And even older nurses, that just can't do 12 hour shifts anymore … they want to be useful. This is something that they can do.”

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.