Although telehealth has grown in popularity over the past several decades, the pandemic has reignited interests in the benefits of technology-based care and spurred the demand for nurses who can step into these roles. Telehealth nursing can extend healthcare accessibility to millions of patients by removing critical barriers, such as lack of transportation and financial limitations. Going forward, it is likely to be a significant part of the healthcare landscape.
What Is Telehealth?
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, telehealth is “the use of communications technologies to provide health care from a distance. These technologies may include computers, cameras, videoconferencing, the internet, and satellite and wireless communications.”
One of the earliest forms of telehealth is the after-hours phone line, typically staffed by nurses, where patient calls are triaged accordingly. Given the wide range of technologies now available, coupled with improved internet access, telehealth services have evolved to include these common examples:
- Receiving phone, text or email messages to remind you about scheduled appointments or prompt you to schedule annual screenings and preventive care
- Logging into a patient portal or electronic health record (EHR) to send a message to a healthcare provider or review test results
- Completing a “virtual visit” with a healthcare provider via phone or video chat
Remote patient monitoring is another form of telehealth. Patients’ key health metrics, such as blood pressure, glucose or heart rhythm, are often collected via a patient-worn device and automatically relayed to healthcare professionals. Patients can remain in their homes while their health status is closely monitored. It is helpful for patients who are managing diabetes, a heart condition or cancer.
What Role Do Nurses Fulfill in Telehealth Care?
Telehealth nurses answer patient questions, triage health concerns and provide support and guidance to patients. They review incoming data collected from remote monitoring devices and contact patients to inform them of medication changes or other timely interventions. Telehealth nurses may work closely with patients who have recently had surgery or undergone treatment. For example, they may routinely check in with oncology patients following chemotherapy sessions to help them manage their symptoms at home and reduce emergency visits and hospitalizations.
Amid the pandemic, telehealth nurses have been integral to ensuring continuity of care. “We now offer most appointments through telehealth and video, whereas before, certain visits were not even eligible for telehealth (consults, new patient visits, physicals),” said Margaree Jordan-Amberg, MSN, RN, Telehealth Special Interest Group (SIG) Chair for the American Academy of Ambulatory Care Nursing (AAACN). “[R]ight now we are doing about 60-70% telehealth. We have also modified our telephone triage approach to be more collaborative [and] treat as many patients as we can at home by using telehealth resources.”
While the rapid growth in demand for telehealth services may have been unpredictable, it has prompted the industry to rethink patient care and streamline processes. “[W]e are more reliant on our telehealth nursing care to provide excellent telephone assessment and triage and enable providers to make good decisions about how best to treat the patient,” said Jordan-Amberg. “We are more aware of things, like ER volumes, and [nimbler] in considering how we can treat patients.”
Thanks to widespread smartphone usage, she and other telehealth nurses are also using apps to contact trace patients infected with COVID-19 and to monitor and schedule vaccinations.
What Skills or Characteristics Do Telehealth Nurses Need?
Jordan-Amberg encourages anyone interested in learning about the field to look at AAACN’s dedicated telehealth nursing resources, including the scope of practice and up-to-date information guiding the field.
“Because so much of working together is remote, collaboration and clarity of purpose is essential, training has to be exceptionally thorough, and staff needs to have resources, [like those provided by AAACN], at their fingertips to be successful,” she said.
Adaptability and a commitment to continuous process improvement are key attributes, too. In addition to utilizing the information provided by AAACN, nurses can learn more about evolving healthcare delivery systems, such as telehealth, during a Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) degree program.
Advances in technological capabilities and widespread internet access have increased the availability of telehealth services, and demand has only increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since telehealth nursing has provided a way for patients to ask questions, voice concerns and address issues before they become acute or chronic — all from the comfort of their homes — these services will likely remain a prominent feature of healthcare.
Jordan-Amberg, M. (2021, January 11). Email interview.