Virtual Nursing, New Training Partnerships Launch to Meet Nursing Shortfall in Connecticut


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After her second back surgery – and 38 years of working 12 hour hospital shifts as a nurse – Denise Gulish assumed she would need to retire early from her beloved but physically demanding job. 

“It was difficult to put in multiple days after my back surgery,” Gulish said. 

After tearing a tendon in her hip, ICU nurse Ruekia Serrano, thought she too was in for a career change. 

“I love bedside and patient care,” Serrano said, who worked for nine years in the Yale New Haven Health Intensive Care Unit. “After I got hurt, I wasn’t able to bend or twist. It’s very hard to do that at the bedside.”

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing has projected early retirements, stress and burnout will lead to about one-fifth of nurses nationally leaving the healthcare workforce by 2027.

“I’ve had lots of friends who were injured and had to retire early,” Serrano said. 

In addition, fewer young people than needed to replace them are choosing a career in nursing. According to the Governor’s Workforce Council and Hartford Healthcare, fewer than 2,000 nurses graduate each year from all nursing programs in Connecticut while an estimated 3,000 new nurses are needed annually to meet staffing demands.   

At the same time, the population of the United States is aging and in increasing need of healthcare, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

“The need for bedside nurses is outpacing nurses entering the field, and those who have retired or transitioned to new positions,” said Mary Christoffersen, chief nursing officer at Bridgeport Hospital. “There are several factors driving this imbalance, including an aging population with complex care needs, barriers to nursing school and burnout for nurses who have been so dedicated during the most challenging times.” 

Keeping nurses in the field longer

At Yale New Haven Health’s Bridgeport Hospital, a new virtual nursing position was established to help slow this growing gap by aiming to keep older and injured nurses working while simultaneously decreasing the workload on floor nurses. 

In April 2023, Serrano, Gulish and seven other nurses piloted the virtual nursing position on the medical-surgical and cardiac units at Bridgeport Hospital. Now, almost a year later, the program has moved out of the pilot stage and looking to expand across the hospital and health system. 

The virtual nurses — who primarily work in an on-site office — are in charge of intakes and discharges as well as patient check-ins, educating patients about medications and treatments and reviewing patient charts. 

“We show up on the tv in their room and connect with them that way,” Serrano said. “I genuinely think for patients just knowing that there is another set of eyes to keep watch over them, check on them is reassuring. We know how the floor gets.” 

The purpose of the virtual nurse is to lighten the load of the floor nurse who is assigned to between seven and nine patients at a time. By these other duties off their plate, that gives them back hours each day to actually care in a timely manner for patients in need, Gulish said. 

“If you’re spending 45 minutes doing an intake you can’t get to the patient who is in pain or climbed out of bed,” Gulish said.

Today the program is working to expand to all medical-surgical units within the hospital. Within a few years it is expected to be throughout the whole health system, Gulish said. 

“We are trying to hire nurses from each unit into the program and they would cover their unit virtually,” Gulish said. “Older nurses, we have a lot to offer, it’s just the physical aspect that is hindering us.” 

The enormous expertise nurses develop in specific areas can be saved and used to better assist patients, said Gulish.

“Nurses are leaving early, physically are taxed, can’t meet the demands and if we can take a big chunk of the demand off their shoulders then more will stick around,” Gulish said. “This also allows nurses to stay in the field and older nurses to continue.” 

Solving the problem with more new nurses

Hartford Healthcare, the second largest health network in the state, is working to solve the nursing shortage another way – by partnering with Eastern Connecticut State University, Sacred Heart University and Quinnipiac University to train more nurses. 

The partnership with Eastern includes a new Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree and the construction of a simulation facility at Windham Hospital to help train students. 

“This is a true joint venture. This is the only nursing program we’re supporting from the ground up,” said Rocco Orlando, chief academic officer for Hartford Healthcare, in a press release. “Eastern Connecticut is the least populous part of the state. The nursing shortage is most profound there.”

The partnerships with Sacred Heart and Quinnipiac are aimed at funneling new graduates into careers with Hartford Healthcare. The hospital system is providing financial resources and training to the schools, which in turn will hopefully produce the needed future medical professionals.