While COVID-19 rocked the world as we knew it, pandemic life enabled us to fully embrace technology. Pairing health care and telecommunication became more vital than ever before, more out of necessity than planning.

Nursing is the nation’s largest and most trusted healthcare professionals with more than three million nurses. Despite its massive size, we need more nurses to meet the growing demand of an aging population and nursing workforce.

According to the American Association of the Colleges of Nursing (AACN), nursing students make up more than half of the students of all health professions. During COVID-19, students proved their flexibility and determination to stay the course. However, forced changes in instructional accommodations made during those times will forever alter the face of nursing education. Moving forward, many nursing students will thrive through online learning and health information services.

Becoming a registered nurse provides the opportunity to positively impact lives each day. While the world is changing, there are many exciting options to improve nursing education. The purpose of this article is to discuss the benefits of online training, creative clinical placements, a continuing focus on holistic care, and the public’s appreciation for the critical career path of nursing.

Improved Distance Learning

In March, many programs were forced to shutter their in-person classes and clinical activities indefinitely and student learning through remote learning services hit an all-time high. However, this increase in technological opportunities and support is cited by the National League for Nursing (NLN) as beneficial for students, better preparing them for the future of a more complex, global healthcare practice 

Wolters Kluwer evaluated the use of technology among nursing students in 2016. Eighty-three percent of nursing students believe that technology enhances their education, and almost 80% believe that it best prepares them for their eventual careers. With three-quarters of prospective nurses using distance learning, these numbers represent the future of nursing education. The impressive part? The NLN projects that virtual reality will have the number one increase in adoption by nursing schools within the next three years.

RN to BSN programs historically featured distance learning. As of 2017, more than half of all nurses had their BSN. That number should increase with the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation that all nurses become baccalaureate prepared. The adoption of remote learning is also growing rapidly among such programs.

A Holistic Approach

The nursing profession skillfully blends both the art of compassion and science to provide unequivocal care. Nurses care for more than just the physical needs of their patients. They support their emotional, cultural, psychological, developmental, and spiritual needs. Nurses believe that healing care is holistic, which means caring for the whole person. Following the pandemic, communities are now focusing on getting and staying healthy. While nursing education has always focused on comprehensive care, the importance of holistic care and health promotion for our clients and ourselves will linger.

Transforming Clinical Climate

The global pandemic transformed the landscape of clinical education. By using creative clinical placements like telehealth, nursing students still yield incredible outcomes. Maryanne Alexander, of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, states that pre-licensure nursing students may complete up to 50 percent of their clinical activity using simulation, which was found to provide practice experiences equal to those gleaned in the clinical setting.  

In Washington, senior nursing students worked in COVID-19 call centers. In April, the Department of Consumer Affairs in California relaxed the number of direct patient care hours that student nurses needed to graduate. The rule change translated to using simulation with high- and low-fidelity mannequins for their clinical practice hours.

Clinical simulation labs are excellent tools for hands-on training. The Commission of Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) does not designate clinical experience hours in CCNE-accredited undergraduate programs. Students must meet all expectations of the program and state boards of nursing. However, programs do have specific requirements and both the state and the CCNE hold the program to those expectations.

Differences in nursing education and required clinical hours extend beyond the undergraduate level to graduate programs. For example, Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs need 1000 total post-baccalaureate clinical hours, and Nurse Practitioner (NP) programs require 500 hours. These hours are designated and evaluated by the CCNE.

Flexible Nurse Practitioner Training

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are advanced-practice nurses caring for populations across the lifespan. With specialties in primary care, adult-gerontology, pediatrics, acute care, and psychiatric mental health, nurse practitioners are a growing population serving diverse communities. Academy Health notes that NPs are the fastest growing primary care providers with an increased need following COVID-19. Likewise, more NP visits are occurring by telehealth than before, opening new opportunities for growing practices. This is a perfect time for nurses to enroll in an NP program and advance their practice. With the increase in online learning, NP students have the flexibility to attend classes on their time.

The good news? This opportunity gives busy nursing professionals with families and other responsibilities the option to return to school. As programs work to accommodate the profession’s best, education opportunities will only continue to improve.

Positive Public Focus

Following the pandemic, there is an increased appreciation for the lifesaving aspects of nursing. The media emphasizes just how crucial they are to the public. Nurses were the unsung heroes comforting the sick and lonely, supporting laboring women, and holding hands as patients quietly passed.

Nurses make a vital difference in the support and care that they provide. We always knew how important nurses are. Now the world knows it too.

Nursing Education Forever Changed

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the course of nursing and nursing education forever. Many of the lasting changes are positive and provide flexible learning that can meet the needs of each student. Being at the forefront of change can be scary, but it is a thrilling time, too. These lasting changes will continue to elevate the standards of online nursing education and impact healthcare forever. 

Dr. Dawn Day is Chair of Graduate Nursing Programs and Associate Professor in the School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Spring Arbor University, which offers an online Doctor of Nursing Practice and Master of Science in Nursing degree, and other nursing programs and post-masters certificates.