Digital Health

With nurses striking, can digital health nursing solutions help hospitals?

Digital health may be able to only solve a subset of the problems that have led to nursing strikes across the country.

Earlier this month, thousands of nurses at New York City hospitals went on strike for three days. Last Thursday, 97% of union nurses from MyMicigan Medical Center voted to strike.

Hospitals have already dealt with a shortage of nurses in the last few years thanks in part to burnout from the COVID-19 pandemic. This shortage has led to the creation of several digital health companies, which aim to solve this problem either by reducing administrative tasks or directly addressing staffing.

But health system executives say digital health is only equipped to address narrow problems in staffing shortages rather than create systemic change that is needed to avoid future nursing strikes.

“If a staff member spends all their time being frustrated with just basic daily tasks [instead of] taking care of a patient, they’re going to look for a better gig,” said Tami Minnier, the chief quality and operational excellence officer at Pittsburgh-based health system UPMC.

While digital solutions have a role to play in contributing to better work environments for nurses, Minnier said broader factors are at play.

“It is about culture, your boss, your work environment and your pay being fair,” Minnier said.

Vendors paint a slightly different picture

Most experts agree the problems that have led to nursing strikes are foundational. But vendors say some of the blame is on hospital executives not seeing eye to eye with frontline care teams.

“This challenge has obviously come from a multitude of places,” said Kate Kline the president of Trusted Health, a nurse staffing software solution for both travel and salaried positions.

Kline questioned whether broad consolidation among health systems has created a stronger workforce that allows nurses to work flexible hours.

“Most health systems have not been able to rally to that call yet,” Kline said.

Trusted Health worked with St. Louis, Missouri-based Mercy Health on a program that dynamically priced nursing shifts. Nurses were paid more for an overnight shift but less for a weekday morning shift. The move led to more nurses taking shorter shifts and some who left the profession during COVID-19 returned to the hospital.

Other digital health companies addressing this challenge include Incredible Health and StaffDNA, which provide real-time analytics to fill in staffing gaps. There is also CipherHealth, which focuses on facilitating better provider-patient communication and, a virtual nursing program aimed to give nurses virtual or hybrid work arrangements without negatively affecting care delivery.

Vendors say health systems need to think outside of the box at how to solve systemic problems. But any solution needs to be grounded in staff support, experts say.

“Receiving broad staff input is one of the most valuable tools available to us in healthcare,” said Heidi Raines, the founder and CEO of Performance Health Partners, a health tech company focused on employee safety reporting. “These nurses are not getting the support they need to provide patient safe and safe patient care. That could be from not having enough staff to work in the health system or just not having the tools they need to do their job well.”

Tech shouldn’t add to the problem

But providers say quickly implementing solutions without taking the proper steps to consult with and educate staff could have the opposite effect. Many caution against implementing technology that was not requested or supported by frontline staff.

Minnier, who worked on the floor as a nurse for a decade, said that approach led her to be mindful before embarking on any digital health implementations. “Around 25% of a nurse’s time is spent documenting an electronic medical record,” she said.

Much of Minnier’s focus is on solutions that reduce the amount of time nurses and other care providers spend inputting information in the EHR. UPMC has also explored how the acquisition and delivery processes behind durable medical equipment could be expedited. Minnier said a partnership with Parachute Health has trimmed the amount of time nurses would spend on the phone securing equipment.

“The sweet spot in these technologies are that you really get down into the weeds of the mundane processes that are still broken in healthcare,” Minnier said.

Robbie Freeman, the vice president of clinical innovation and chief nursing informatics officer at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, said his organization has opted for a similar approach. The system plans to equip all of its care team with smartphones that are able to quickly access a suite of services like translation and EHR notes.

“I think a lot of the work we’re doing is more supporting their practice,” Freeman said. “When I [do] rounds, I hear from our frontline bedside nurses they would like to see things more streamlined.”

Even though digital health can make an impact, vendors acknowledge it is only a portion of broader improvements required to improve employee morale.

“I’m certainly not sitting here saying [digital health] is a panacea,” Kline said. “[But] it is a big piece.”

While digital solutions have a role to play in contributing to better work environments for nurses, Minnier said broader factors are at play.


Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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