The Critical Role of Nursing Leadership in the Digital Healthcare Revolution

Jeanette Ives Erickson, RN, DNP, FAAN, Chief Nurse Emerita, Paul. M Erickson Chair in Nursing, Massachusetts General Hospital

Katherine Virkstis, ND, Vice President, Clinical Advisory Services, Get Well

In our series inspired by the recent article Leading with Hope by Katherine Virkstis, Get Well’s VP of Clinical Advisory Services, we delve deeper into each of the 7 insights from Get Well’s recent CNO Council on the Future of Digital Health. Today, we focus on Insight #1: The central role of nurse leadership in the digital transformation of healthcare. 

Today’s healthcare environment is undergoing an unprecedented, intense reformation. The demands on today’s leaders have evolved from merely stabilizing and growing their organizations to fundamentally transforming their values, beliefs, and behaviors. This shift requires nurse leaders to not only lead people to where they currently are but to where they need to be to meet future demands, a job that demands vision, influence, clinical knowledge, and robust expertise in professional nursing practice. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) emphasizes that transformational leadership is an important call to action for all nurse leaders. Transformation often introduces turbulence and demands atypical solutions, but it is essential for staying ahead in a rapidly evolving healthcare landscape. 

Dual responsibilities of nurse executives

Our discussions during the CNO Council meeting underscored the dual responsibilities of the CNO: 1) to prepare clinical nurses and others for the digital future of care delivery and 2) to represent both patients and nurses at the business decision-making table. These responsibilities enable CNOs to create paths forward that align with clinical excellence and organizational goals, fostering inclusive and forward-thinking strategies.

Guiding the workforce towards a digital future

As the largest and often most visible group of healthcare professionals, nurses bring invaluable perspectives to patient care. Their roles extend beyond caregiving; they are pivotal in spearheading innovations and systemic improvements. Evidence emphasizes involving nurses and other frontline workers in developing new technologies to support successful implementation. It is therefore vital for the nurses and other members of the healthcare workforce to be equipped to work in the future digital health and care system. Looking to the future, nurses will need to be equipped with competencies in areas such as genomics, AI, and data science. 

Drawing on insights from NHS England’s year-long review, “Preparing the Nursing and Midwifery Workforce to Deliver the Digital Future,” we recognize the urgent need for skills that meet the demands of evolving healthcare technologies. The influential Topol Review emphasized transforming healthcare through technology, advocating for a paradigm shift in how we prepare our healthcare professionals. This review set the stage for integrating emerging technologies with person-centered care, predicting significant evolution in the roles of nursing and midwifery over the next two decades.

Participants in this review identified that the roles and functions of the nursing and midwifery workforce will need to change over the next 20 years to fully realize the benefits of technological developments for health and care systems. This will be underpinned by a philosophical and cultural shift back to enabling health and moving the focus away from treating illness. The power dynamic between ‘professional’ and ‘patient’ will increasingly change from paternalism to partnership, as people are informed and empowered by the information that they can access about themselves. These changes are consistent with both the purpose of the nursing and midwifery professions and the review’s ambition, which are epitomized by Virginia Henderson’s definition of nursing: “The unique function of the nurse is to assist the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery (or to peaceful death) that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will or knowledge”. 

The promise of innovative technologies: access care anytime, anywhere

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of digital health technologies such as online consultations, remote monitoring, and virtual care. These technologies not only alleviate the strain on hospital resources but also bring healthcare into the homes of patients, ensuring care remains person-centered. The surge in mobile health apps has transformed access to healthcare, allowing patients to manage their health records and services directly from their devices. This shift reduces the demand for in-person specialty services and empowers patients to take an active role in their health management.

Why the voice of the nurse executive is essential

Positioned uniquely at the intersection of clinical practice and technological advancement, nurse executives understand the profound connection between technology and practical, effective patient care. Their leadership is necessary for preparing the nursing workforce for a future where digital health tools are ubiquitous. They are more than participants in this technological shift; they are the primary drivers who guide their teams through the integration of cutting-edge technologies with traditional nursing practices. Their oversight ensures that the adoption of these tools transcends mere technical updates to meaningfully enhance patient-centered care. 

Moreover, nurse executives are pivotal in fostering an environment of continuous learning and innovation. By encouraging participation in the development and testing of new technologies, they help ensure that these innovations meet the complex demands of healthcare delivery. Their leadership in this area is about more than just adopting new tools; it’s about creating a culture where innovation is embraced and where every member of the healthcare team is empowered to suggest improvements.

When healthcare organizations make technology acquisitions that impact direct care nurses without the involvement of nurse executives, they often set themselves up for costly failures; these decisions typically involve substantial financial investments and changes in the nurse workflow and onboarding programs. Even if the input of nurse leaders is sought downstream or at the point of implementation, it is usually too late to make significant changes without incurring extra costs. Therefore, it is imperative that nurse executives be core members of the decision-making team, along with the CIO, CFO and CMO. Their involvement ensures technology investments are not only innovative but also practical, person-centered, and truly reflective of the real needs and challenges in healthcare settings.

Navigating challenges

While digital health presents numerous opportunities, it also comes with challenges. Ensuring the effective integration and utilization of these technologies requires substantial investment in developing skills, enhancing digital leadership, and shifting organizational culture. By advocating for and implementing digital solutions, nurse executives ensure that technology investments are not only innovative but also practical and patient-centric. They play a vital role in developing digital competencies across all levels of nursing staff, ensuring that the team is not only comfortable with new technologies but also proficient in using them to enhance patient care.

Maintaining the compassionate ‘human touch’ of care in the context of a technological age is essential but challenging. In one study, more than half of clinicians felt that telehealth will negatively affect their ability to demonstrate empathy with patients. Nurses and midwives will be key to maintaining the benefits of human connection while embracing the opportunities of innovative technology. There are practical challenges associated with moving to entirely remote care, as different forms of interaction will need to be aligned to ensure a truly holistic assessment; for example, to avoid possible miscommunication stemming from the absence of social cues or wider health indicators missed by not visiting people at home.

Collaborative leadership in transformational times

Successful digital transformation in healthcare is highly dependent on effective collaboration across various teams. Nurse leaders facilitate this by engaging with both clinical and non-clinical stakeholders, including technology experts and senior leadership, to define and implement inclusive digital strategies. Their ability to communicate and collaborate effectively ensures that digital health initiatives are well-supported and aligned with the organization’s overall goals.

Today’s healthcare environment demands leaders who can not only manage but transform organizational values and practices to meet future needs. This transformational leadership, as defined by the ANCC, involves vision, influence, and deep clinical expertise.

Looking Ahead

As we continue to navigate this transformative era, the insights from the CNO Council remind us that nurse leaders are not just participants but are driving forces in the healthcare transformation journey. Their strategic position enables them to shape the future of digital health, ensuring care remains compassionate, accessible, and innovative.

Stay tuned for more discussions as we unpack the remaining insights, providing you with a roadmap for understanding and navigating the future of digital healthcare. To learn more about how Get Well supports the digital healthcare journey, please visit Get Well 360: our enterprise digital engagement platform. 

1 Hamer S, Cipriano P (2013) Involving nurses in developing new technology. Nursing Times; 109: 47, 18-19.

2 McCormack B, McCance T, Bulley C, Brown D, McMillan A, Martin S (editors). Fundamentals of Person-Centred Healthcare Practice. 2021. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

3 Henderson V, Nite G. Principles and Practice of Nursing. New York, Macmillan. 1978.

4 Elsevier Health. Clinician of the Future: a 2022 report. 2022.

5 Strudwick G, Wiljer D, Inglis F. Nursing and compassionate care in a technological world: a discussion paper. AMS Healthcare. January 2020.