Industry Voices—Supporting nurses to deliver care where, when and how it's needed in a pandemic

In 2019, the World Health Organization declared 2020 the Year of the Nurse. Few would have guessed that this designation would coincide with a global pandemic.

Ironically, the significant contributions of nurses are more visible than ever. During this unprecedented time, nurses across the country and around the globe are rising to the many challenges of COVID-19 and meeting critical needs—especially when they are empowered to do so.

A fundamental reason many clinicians have been able to meet communities’ needs during the pandemic is due to the federal government and more than 46 states permitting temporary flexibilities and/or either partial or full scope of practice authorities. This flexibility has enabled clinicians to practice at the top of their licenses and apply their knowledge and expertise quickly.

At UnitedHealth Group, we have enabled our nurses and nurse practitioners to adapt to meet the moment. We have redeployed and trained more than 2,000 employees for new roles that address the critical needs of our communities. 

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In the first many weeks of the public health crisis here in the U.S., here is some of what I observed:

  • After pausing our home-visit program due to shelter-in-place orders, nearly 700 nurse practitioners stepped up to provide telephonic care.
  • More than 150 Optum nurses were trained to manage calls to our nurse advice lines that support the care of eligible military service members and their families.
  • Our nurses all over the country quickly adapted to set up outdoor triage tents, to meet patients at cars and to offer drive-thru testing for COVID-19.
  • Our nurse practitioners and nurses in nursing homes are providing critical care for some of the most vulnerable patients in our country. They are facing incredible challenges and providing patients’ families their only connection to their loved ones.  
  • We have stood up new clinical models and increased access to care by providing virtual video visits for our members.

Allowing advanced practice clinicians to practice to the full extent of their education and training represents a meaningful, timely opportunity to increase primary care capacity in the U.S. According to 2018 UnitedHealth Group research, if all states allowed nurse practitioners to practice to the full extent of their graduate education, advanced clinical training and national certification, the number of U.S. residents living in a county with a primary care shortage would decline 70%.

Additionally, several of the 18 states not currently in the Enhanced Nurse Licensure Compact have allowed temporary interstate practice for nurses. This compact allows LPNs and RNs from participating states to practice across state lines. Simply put, in recent weeks we have been able to increase care capacities where needed.  

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As we look forward to the other side of this crisis, we know that the landscape will never be the same. Seniors in rural communities and busy parents looking to connect using telemedicine will still need care, and nurses can fill this need.

By supporting legislation that allows nurses to do what they do best, with as broad a reach as possible, we will be better positioned to care for our communities and people in the future.    

Kristy Duffey, MS, APRN-BC, FAAN, is the chief nursing officer of Optum, part of UnitedHealth Group, and the co-lead of the Optum Enterprise Clinical Services Team.