Virtual Reality Could Be the Answer For Supporting the Next Generation of Nurses

Profile photo of Samantha MoyerBy Samantha Moyer, senior technology product manager, Wolters Kluwer Health.

We have all heard the staggering statistics of the current workforce issues happening across the healthcare industry, and one of the biggest segments facing staffing issues is nursing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 203,200 openings for RNs each year through 2031 when nurse retirements and workforce exits are factored into the number of nurses needed in the U.S.

While there are many factors around why we have a nursing shortage currently, one of the areas that is often overlooked are the issues facing nurses who just graduated college and are transitioning into practice.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the divide between the demands of nursing programs and requirements of working in health systems has only grown. We are increasingly seeing an alarming number of young nurses leaving the profession shortly after receiving their degree partially because they are not receiving the hands-on experiences needed to prep them for this transition. Even if they are interacting with patients, they often aren’t forced to navigate the care of multiple patients at once like they would in a real-world care setting.

Because of this gap, technology can be a critical tool in helping the next generation of nurses get ready for their day-to-day professional lives. Specifically, virtual reality (VR) is giving us the ability to put multiple, diverse patient cases and hospital situations directly into the hands of nursing students – giving them experiences they have not had access to previously before they reach the bedside.

VR transports nurses to the hospital floor

COVID-19 forever changed the healthcare industry in countless ways and many of the opportunities that were available to students preparing for a career in healthcare, such as in-depth clinical rotations and managing a caseload of multiple patients, before the pandemic are now limited. One of the most important and formative times of a nursing student’s education is their clinical experiences – when the students go into the healthcare setting to see and react to patients alongside experienced nurses.

This experience allows them to get acclimated to the patient care setting, while still in a controlled environment. However, the pandemic has essentially removed or severely limited the ability for these critical teaching moments to take place. The lockdown of health facilities across the globe that has happened over the past few years means that there is no longer the flexibility to provide the hours needed for clinical practice to take place.

While this real-life experience can never be replaced, how do we ensure our nurses still have the ability to care for a varying cohort of patients that they will encounter in their careers? This is where technology can have a huge impact. Think about it, students in college today have been exposed to technology, gamification, and virtual settings their entire lives – this is how they live and learn – so, educators should be providing the types of tools necessary to teach them in this manner.

Virtual reality can be a powerful solution to help close this clinical skills gap, not because it is shiny and new, but because it has the ability to transport nursing students into a setting that feels life-like and is a cost-effective, safe way to learn. It not only reduces the risks for patients, but also lets nursing students develop critical thinking skills related to how to prioritize patient care needs without putting real patients at risk. This prioritization is essential to delivering appropriate care in real clinical environments and can make a dramatic impact on patient outcomes once nurses are at the bedside.

Although it is still a new study area, research is showing that VR serves as a bridge between theory and practice in nursing education – even showcasing how VR can make learning fun while students acquire knowledge and develop skills that makes them more motivated and confident. State legislators are also investing in the promise of simulation and virtual reality to strengthen the health care workforce, such as a new bill passed in New York that permits students to complete up to one third of their clinical training through simulation.

Closing the gap for new nurses

The fact of the matter is that if we are graduating students that have never had the experience of caring for multiple patients at once, being interrupted by health emergencies or a concerned family member, they will not be set up for success. That is exactly what has happened over the past few years – new nursing graduates were forced to enter the workforce without knowing what to expect and lacking the same training afforded to their older colleagues. This led to a large gap in critical decision making amongst new nurses and even caused many to leave the profession before they really had a chance to experience what they studied so hard to do.

Throughout my travels and speaking with universities across the country, we are seeing some programs that are only teaching in a classroom setting – providing reading materials, teaching by PowerPoint, and testing in an old-school manner. I know leading programs where a graduating class has only had one virtual simulation experience during the entire time students are at school.

How can we ask these students to then start seeing sick patients and exposing them to things they have never seen before? It is an unfair request to the students and patients, and we must leverage new tools like VR to give them more exposure to the real-life situations they will find themselves in.

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