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Digital literacy part 6: The future of e-nursing

The final article in our six-part series on digital literacy considers the changes that e-health technologies are likely to bring to nursing and healthcare in the future

The final article in our six-part series on digital literacy considers the changes that e-health technologies are likely to bring to nursing and healthcare in the future


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How will the digital revolution change nursing in the future?

While change is undeniable, most agree it’s hard to predict exactly how technologies will impact the future of nursing. Areas most likely to be affected are: record-keeping and information-sharing; the ways in which we communicate with patients, including remote consultations and online support; and treatment, including how we monitor long-term conditions.

To discover more about the views of nursing staff on this issue, the RCN launched an extensive UK-wide consultation on the digital future of nursing, which closed in February.

Nursing staff working in the NHS, social care and the independent sector were asked to share what they thought about technology and its impact on practice.

Workshops held in all four countries of the UK looked at how to make the most of the technologies and data available, the challenges faced by nursing staff, and examples of good practice and innovation. Some results are likely to be available at RCN congress in Belfast in May, where a special fringe event is also being organised.

What about the impact on healthcare more generally?

In its 2016 report Delivering the Benefits of Digital Healthcare, the Nuffield Trust suggests ways healthcare may change over the next decade. These include clinical professionals spending more time treating patients, rather than wasting time managing processes.

Patient outcomes will be improved, the charity says, with technology intelligently supporting long-term health management and short-term episodes of illness or injury.

‘Organisational and professional boundaries will be far less visible, as integrated information and communication systems dissolve many of the current divides between primary, secondary and tertiary care,’ the report says.

It also predicts that healthcare professionals will develop a wide range of consulting and coaching skills, as they expand the ways in which they interact with, and empower, their patients.

Does technology have any downsides for the profession?

Technologies can transform care, with a variety of benefits for patients, staff and organisations, but they are not a magic bullet.

‘Technologies can also fail to solve some problems for patients and citizens, or address the things that really matter to them,’ says the RCN in Improving Digital Literacy, a joint report with Health Education England (HEE), published in 2017.

Technology can even frustrate nurses or hinder them from doing the jobs they need to do, the report says.

While all nurses need to make certain they are digitally literate, this should enhance their nursing skills rather than replace them, argues Gary Francis, associate professor at London South Bank University’s school of health and social care.

‘My note of caution is that we always have to remember the patient,’ he says. ‘We can become overwhelmed by technology, so the nurse of the future also needs to be aware of its pitfalls. While it can be used to enhance and manage patient care much more efficiently, the patient can be forgotten in that process.’

‘We can become overwhelmed by technology, so the nurse of the future also needs to be aware of its pitfalls’

Gary Francis, associate professor, London South Bank University

It’s important the profession does not overlook professional skills such as care and compassion, he says. ‘I’m very much in favour of the nursing role and what it means – and I don’t want us to lose sight of that,’ says Professor Francis.    

Will nurses eventually be replaced by robots?

‘Artificial intelligence is big news at the moment and already we’re seeing it replace humans in some back-office functions,’ says Matt Butler, chair of the RCN eHealth forum. ‘But we’re a long way from replicating any human-type intelligence in nursing roles, as nursing is so complex and varied.’

Robots are already working in Guangzhou Women and Children's Hospital in southern China, but they only perform basic tasks such as carrying equipment.

The Financial Times reports that three different kinds of robots have been introduced into care homes in Japan. They lift patients from beds into wheelchairs, lead exercise routines and engage in simple chat. 

What will the e-learning nurse of the future look like?

Being able to learn anywhere at any time makes it much easier to incorporate learning into everyday professional life, says Richard Hatchett, a senior nurse editor at RCNi.

‘The nurse of the future will be someone who learns on the go,’ says Dr Hatchett. ‘It will be a natural part of their day, when sitting on a train, for example.’

Traditional ways of learning, built around blocks of segmented knowledge, will be replaced by something more immediately accessible, he believes.

‘Hopefully, this means learning will be much more integrated into practice,’ says Dr Hatchett. ‘I think one of the results will be that nurses will become good critical thinkers, because they are trickle-feeding their knowledge all the time. I hope it also encourages reflection.’ 

Can nurses help to shape the future use of technology?

Yes, and it looks like it needs to happen much more than it is now. ‘We have nurses only rarely involved in the design and development of technology,’ says the RCN’s Improving Digital Literacy report. ‘Nurses might be trained in how to use systems, but not educated in how or why the systems support care.’

‘Rather than becoming victims of technology, we need to be at its forefront'

Matt Butler, chair of the RCN eHealth forum

Instead, nurses need to embrace the agenda and play a key role in determining it, argues Mr Butler. ‘What we’re trying to achieve is that nurses take control,’ he says. ‘Rather than becoming victims of technology, we need to be at its forefront, involved and consulted from the beginning, so that innovations benefit from our knowledge.’

He argues that developers and nursing staff should work together to shape technologies from the outset.

‘If the benefits are to be realised, both in terms of costs and improving patient care, there needs to be much greater clinical involvement in projects,’ says Mr Butler. ‘They need to listen to us and, when they do, it works well. If they don’t, inevitably it fails.’

How will nurses be using social media to improve their practice?

Revalidation is already changing the way nurses are using social media, says nurse Teresa Chinn. In 2011 she founded #WeNurses, which hosts regular Twitter chats on all aspects of nursing, with many senior nurses regularly taking part.

‘With revalidation, we’ve seen a massive boost in nurses using social media for their professional development,’ Ms Chinn says. ‘It’s inspired them to use it in different ways and now we’re seeing them really taking it seriously, using it for online learning, reflections and as part of their portfolios. I think it can only increase and we will see it being used even more.

‘Continuing austerity and the squeeze on training budgets means that people are looking for low-cost ways to learn, and social media fits perfectly.’ 

She believes social media is a particular boon for the participatory learning element of revalidation, which requires applicants to undertake activities involving one or more other professionals, either in a physical or virtual environment.

‘I think we were initially all quite worried about that aspect, as many of us were used to doing our professional development alone,’ says Ms Chinn. ‘But social media allows us to have this interaction very easily.’


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Lynne Pearce is a freelance health journalist


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