Telehealth Nursing: What Future Nurses Need to Know
Telehealth has been growing for some time, but the COVID-19 pandemic exponentially accelerated its growth for most healthcare providers. Nurses have been delivering nursing care over the phone for quite some time—typically in the form of checking on patients after surgery and giving patients pre-op instructions before the surgery. However, their role in telehealth has expanded dramatically in nearly every specialty.
Though most patients are much more familiar with telehealth than they used to be, it’s well worth taking the time to explore how telehealth has changed and the role nurses play it in. If you’re curious about what it’s like to work as a nurse in telehealth, keep reading.
What is telehealth?
Telehealth allows patients and providers to exchange vital health information and provide care to patients that might otherwise not have access to quality healthcare. Telehealth is defined as the use of digital information and communication to access healthcare services remotely and manage your healthcare, according to the Mayo Clinic.1While telehealth can include using an app to upload food logs or keep track of prescriptions, it can also mean having virtual appointments with a healthcare provider or having a nurse review your food logs, blood sugar levels or vital signs with remote monitoring.
Telehealth can make a world of difference for people who live in rural communities or medical deserts, people who have difficulty leaving work for a medical appointment or need access to specific medical specialists and people who can’t leave their home—pandemic or not.
Telehealth and COVID-19
In the past, telehealth was vastly underutilized mostly because federal laws, state laws and insurance policies made it more difficult to deliver than in-person care. Some insurers, like Medicare, would not pay providers as much for telemedicine visits as they would for in-person appointments.2 Many also would not cover the visit at all unless the patient lived in a rural area or was a new patient to the provider.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised all healthcare facilities and providers to adopt social distancing in offices and offer services through virtual means, like phone calls and video chats. In March 2020, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services opened up access to telemedicine, covering services like virtual appointments and remote monitoring for chronic conditions at the same rates as in-person care. Telehealth visits increased 154% in the last week of March 2020 compared with the same period in 2019—likely as a result of public health guidance and increased accessibility.3
Though the future of telehealth depends heavily on state and federal policies and what insurance will cover, demand for virtual visits is likely to remain higher than pre-pandemic demand. Telehealth likely isn’t going away. Let’s explore the role that nurses play in delivering quality remote care to patients.
What is telehealth nursing?
Telehealth nursing is the nursing care delivered by remote device monitoring, phone, video chat and other technologies. Nurses can give patients advice about symptom management over the phone. They can monitor a patient’s oxygen levels, heart rate, respiration rate and blood glucose remotely for distant ICUs in rural areas and alert in-person staff. Nurses can teach patients how to dress a wound or treat a minor burn over a video call. Nurses also commonly “room” patients for virtual visits with their provider by obtaining updated health info, gathering a history and reviewing their medication list.
Though telehealth nursing roles vary quite a bit depending on the health system or hospital, there are three primary types of telehealth nurses. Let’s walk through their duties.
- Advice nurse: Advice nurses help patients determine what kind of care they need: an urgent care appointment, an ER visit or symptom management at home. A big part of the role includes patient education.
- Triage nurse: Triage nurses determine patients’ status and make sure the truly immediate cases are seen as quickly as possible. They may pass less emergent cases on to advice nurses, who may educate patients or set up later appointments.
- Medical office nurse: Some medical office nurses have telehealth duties in addition caring for patients in the office. They may “room” patients for virtual visits, relay new symptoms or concerns to the patients’ care team, explain test results or give medical advice.
This just a short list of telehealth roles. Keep in mind that the telehealth field is evolving, and roles will continue to change. When looking for nursing positions, you should consider asking about telehealth duties.
What new nurses should know about telehealth nursing
No matter where you’re at in your nursing journey—whether you’re just exploring the idea of becoming a nurse or you’ve already graduated—there are some things to keep in mind when considering telehealth nursing positions for yourself.
1. Your prospects are good
Since telehealth technologies have exploded in popularity, more health systems are looking to hire dedicated telehealth nurses. Whether you work 100 percent with telehealth or it’s just a small component of your job, you’ll be gaining valuable skills. Being able to communicate well over a variety of technologies will aid you when talking with staff members remotely and when comforting and educating patients, even when they’re not in the office or in the hospital.
2. Telehealth nursing can be more flexible than traditional nursing positions
Though flexibility heavily depends on the employer and the exact position, telehealth nursing can provide more flexibility than traditional in-office or in-hospital positions. They can provide relief for nurses with physical ailments that make working a full shift on their feet painful. Plus, some telehealth jobs can be work-from-home positions that you won’t have to leave your slippers for! However, keep in mind that many telehealth positions have more firm work schedules that align with busy call times, even if they are remote jobs.
If you’re looking to work from home or traditional nursing jobs are hard on your body, it may be worth looking into to telehealth-heavy nursing positions. That being said, it’s important to note that nurses, especially those who are new to the field, should not expect to find a position where they can work entirely from home. Most positions will require onsite work.
3. Telehealth nursing positions require experience
Before you transition to telehealth, you’ll need to gain hands-on nursing experience. If you hope to work in a specific specialty, it’s best to start there. On the other hand, acquiring and keeping up a broad base of knowledge can be useful if you hope to work as an advice or triage nurse. Consider gaining experience in the ER, ICU, primary care or family medicine.
Due to the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, many later-career nurses will likely be looking for less hands-on positions and may be seeking telehealth-only or telehealth-heavy positions. Gaining quality experience will help you compete with more seasoned nurses. Keep your eye on telehealth positions as the field continues to evolve and be open-minded about what your first telehealth nursing position might look like.
But before you can gain that experience, you’ll first need to become a nurse!
How to become a telehealth nurse
To get started, you’ll need to complete either a Registered Nurse (RN) or Licensed Practical Nurse/ Licensed Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN) licensing program. To become a registered nurse, you can either earn an Associate’s degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing (BSN). Once you graduate, you’ll need to pass the appropriate NCLEX licensure exam and meet your state’s requirements to practice as a nurse.
Most telehealth nurse positions require previous hands-on nursing experience. Though no additional certifications are required, the Ambulatory Care Nursing Certification (RN-BC) can be a good option for nurses interested in telehealth work.
Pick up the phone
Telehealth nursing can be an extremely rewarding career for nurses who are ready to embrace technology and ride the waves of this growing field.
If you’re ready to get started on your path to becoming a telehealth registered nurse, check out our article “How to Become an RN Fast: 3 Potential Paths to Pursue.”
1Mayo Clinic, “Telehealth: Technology meet healthcare” [accessed March, 2021] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/telehealth/art-20044878
2Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, “Medicare Telemedicine Healthcare Provider Fact Sheet” [accessed March 2021] https://www.cms.gov/newsroom/fact-sheets/medicare-telemedicine-health-care-provider-fact-sheet
3Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Trends in the Use of Telehealth During the Emergence of the COVID-19 Pandemic—United States, January – March 2020 [accessed March 2021] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6943a3.htm