Once upon a time -- in the late 1960s -- a nurse wrote everything by hand on a piece of paper. She might have used a suction machine that had to be moved from one room to another and a huge bulky oxygen tank that she tripped over frequently. Today, many nurses use a computer to do their charting, and both suction and oxygen are piped into each patient room. Many other technological advances are changing the ways in which nurses perform nursing.
A nurse is a whiz at putting together seemingly unrelated pieces of information into a cohesive whole. Blood pressure, pulse, skin color, urinary output, body weight -- hey, this patient’s going into congestive heart failure. Technology can help nurses gather and report some of that information. In some hospitals, sensors on a patient send a constant stream of blood pressure or pulse readings to the nurse’s PDA or alert her to a possible complication, such as a blood clot. Other technology can remind her that it's time for a medication or to turn a patient.
IVs and Medications
Once, nurses had to make regular rounds to check on intravenous lines to ensure that the patient was receiving the correct amount of fluid or medication. Today, “smart” pumps can be set to the correct rate; respond to increased pressure such as kinked tubing; and alert the nurse if the bag of fluid is empty. Similar technology for medications can help prevent medication errors. Nurse "robots" can even dispense some medications, moving from room to room dispensing pills and potions from automated drawers.
Nurses have always been responsible for patient education, but instead of hand-drawn pictures, charts or anatomy books, now they can simply click the remote on the patient’s television to the hospital education channel. Nurse educators, who teach student nurses, use technology for distance learning. Some courses do require hands-on learning, but many can be taught with teleconferencing equipment or stored videos of lectures. In the nursing lab, students can learn how to give an injection or pass a nasogastric tube on lifelike patient mannequins, instead of giving an orange an immunization, as was once common.
Communication is a biggie in health care -- all patient information has to get to the right people as soon as possible, and it has to be accurate. In the past, an abnormal lab result would be phoned to the nurse. Today, she is just as likely to sit down in front of a computer terminal and pull up the lab results online. Wireless communication via cell phones and PDAs allows the nurse to be mobile. Many organizations are moving the paper chart online; sometimes the documentation can be done at the bedside or on a wireless tablet. Nurses in remote areas may use telehealth videoconferencing capabilities to connect their patients with specialists in a major medical center.
Nurses, like many other professionals, need access to reference information; no way can they carry all that stuff in the human brain. IPods are one way to carry dozens of reference books in your pocket. Need to know what a normal blood gas profile looks like? Tap your IPod to find out. Another use for technology is radio frequency identification for both equipment and patients. Wireless voice-over-IP phones and patient tracking boards make it easier to keep track of both patients and staff -- no more overhead paging announcements. But one thing about nursing hasn’t changed with technology; nurses still care for and about their patients.
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.