The role of nurses has always been an important one but this year, perhaps more than ever, their role in our healthcare system has never been more integral.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way clinicians and patients alike interact with the NHS, with digital being front and centre of new ways of working.

Reflecting back on 2020, declared Year of the Nurse by the World Health Organisation, Microsoft’s chief nursing officer (CNO) Molly McCarthy, believes new technology brings new roles for nurses.

The pandemic is not the catalyst for these roles – technology in nursing is nothing new – but it has highlighted the importance of digital tools and the opportunities they bring with them.

“In a situation where you have a patient who has Covid-19 and cannot have any visitors, the only way to bring loved ones into that room is through technology,” McCarthy tells Digital Health News.

“That, by far, is probably one of the greatest benefits to nurses and patients throughout the pandemic.”

Asked whether the pandemic has changed the culture around digital and IT McCarthy, who is based in the US, believes it’s “hard to say at this point”.

She explained that many nurses, and clinicians, still see technology as systems like electronic health records but it’s “bigger than that”.

“The concept of technology will really need to be embraced by any nursing leader,” she said.

“At the core it’s not just the underlying tech or device, but it’s the data and analytics that will help drive evidence-based change for their nurses and their care.”

A good understanding of technology and how it can impact nursing can drive better clinical, operational and financial outcomes, McCarthy added.

An ‘integral’ role

NHSX appointed its first national chief nursing information officer (CNIO) in early 2020. Following her appointment Natasha Phillips told Digital Health News it was “absolutely necessary” for a CNIO to be in every organisation.

It’s a sentiment echoed by McCarthy who believes the CNIO role is “integral” within senior leadership. Compared to the UK, the US is further ahead in the drive for CNIOs to be part of senior leadership and McCarthy speaks firsthand about the benefits that can bring for the profession.

“I believe that the CNIO is integral as a part of senior leadership in terms of driving change and adoption of technology,” she said.

The technology needs to “make sense” and “provide better patient experiences and outcomes”, she added.

But technology or informatics is not always seen as a career of choice in nursing and often there is a worry it will mean nurses are “pulled from the bedside”.

One of McCarthy’s goals as CNO for Microsoft is to dispel that misconception and encourage more nurses to take up technology roles.

“With new technology comes new roles for nurses and unless they are exposed to that they’re not going to know what’s available to them,” she told Digital Health News.

“I think there are a couple of ways to do that. One is through that tangible experience of, for example, educational activities.

“With that comes different specialties that they might focus on in an undergrad programme. Maybe it is more on the patient care pathway, or maybe it is more on the informatics pathway.”

‘Critical in the design process’

Involving nurses, and also clinicians, is a vital part of creating technology that works for patients as well as care givers, McCarthy stresses.

Health technology is designed to streamline processes, freeing up time for clinicians to allow them to provide better patient care. But its success relies on clinical input.

“Nurses are interacting the most closely with patients and their families, they understand the challenges not just that the patients face, but that they face when providing care,” McCarthy said.

“A lot of times nurses create their own workarounds, typically a manual solution to a technical problem.

“We want to take their innovative spirit and help them understand that what they are seeing and what they are thinking about is critical in the design process.”

It’s that role in the design process, alongside many others, that highlights a need for CNIOs to be appointed in every organisation.

The Year of the Nurse, a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth, has been one of the toughest the profession has ever seen.

But out of an unimaginable pandemic has come a renewed drive for technology and innovation among nurses – one that will likely change the profession for the better in the future.

Going into winter and the uncertain months that lie ahead, ensuring nurses have the tools and support they need is more important than ever.

“It’s about caring for those who care for us,” McCarthy said.