Could COVID-19 end in better nurses?

The coronavirus pandemic has created chaos and challenges for healthcare workers and hospitals across the country, but there are some bright spots.

Lauren Martin believes that for most nurses, the pandemic is providing opportunities for better patient care and better learning environments for new nurses like her.

“Most people think of New York and places like that that are overwhelmed. At the hospital I’m working at, we’re not overwhelmed,” she said.

“It gives you time to pay attention to your patient … it gives you time to understand each piece of being a competent and safe nurse.”

Martin graduated from Baptist College of Health Sciences on April 17 and started work at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Desoto on a floor that isn’t seeing COVID-19 patients.

Susan Ferguson is the chief nursing executive at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Desoto. She confirmed that they’ve seen a drop in patients, as have most U.S. hospitals.

The deficit is largely due to the halt on out-patient procedures and elective surgeries, but people are also avoiding emergency rooms for fear of coming in contact with the virus or using resources needed for COVID-19 patients.

Tennessee lifted its statewide ban on outpatient procedures and non-emergency surgeries in early May and elective surgeries resumed at Baptist-Desoto mid-May.

Once again, healthcare workers are adjusting to a new normal that balances patient care and safety with a rebounding patient load. For Martin and other new nurses who launched their careers in the pandemic, there may be an advantage there too.

“Technically, this is my normal,” said Martin. “I don’t know any different at this point.”

How to Make a Better Nurse

The vast majority of nurses were excellent healthcare providers before the pandemic who served patients to the best of their ability and beyond. But studies have shown nurses can only spend around 33% of their time working face-to-face with patients.

Fewer patients means more time to improve on what they do best.
Newly registered nurse Lauren Martin takes a photo with Baptist College of Health Sciences' blue healer mascot while driving through her graduation parade. The school's in-person graduation was canceled due to pandemic. (submitted)
Martin said nurses on her floor usually tend to six to eight patients at a time. Now they’re averaging four to six. 

“I’m able to slow down and pay attention to my patients and pick out things that are important, key pieces,” she said.

Ferguson said the hospital is helping patients in isolation communicate remotely with family and friends, but Martin said, unfortunately, there’s only so much that can be done remotely.

“They sit in that room most of the day with the door closed by themselves. They’ll call family members, but there are only so many people who can talk,” she said.

Now more than ever, her job includes chitchat. Far from idle, these talks can have a profound effect on health outcomes and patient satisfaction.

“Sometimes just standing in there talking to them for an extra five minutes is what they need, and we’re able to do that right now because we have a lower patient load,” said Martin.

The Problem With Less Patients

There may be bright spots for healthcare in the pandemic, but there are also serious consequences.

Patients have less access to non-emergency care and hospitals are facing layoffs, furloughs, and closures as they hemorrhage money. The Daily Memphian reported that the surgery moratoriums cut off around 45% of revenue from most Shelby County hospitals.

For-profit hospitals have to make enough to keep the facility running and turn a profit for investors and executives. Performing surgeries and out-patient tests and procedures for people with good health insurance and a decent income is how hospitals make money.

But that’s not the average patient in the Mid-South.

Memphis has the most pervasive poverty and highest rate of under- and uninsured residents among Tennessee’s four major cities.

Medicare and Medicaid make up more than 60% of most hospitals’ patients nationwide, but reimbursement rates don’t cover costs. The most recent data is from 2018 and shows a $76.6 billion gap between subsidies and cost of treatment.

Ferguson said Baptist-Desoto has not had to make major staffing cuts in the pandemic. Martin said there are less hours to go around and some seasonal and part-time nurses on her floor are taking a bigger hit, but most of the team is still working.
Faculty and staff of the Baptist College of Health Sciences' held a driving-through graduation parade for their 2020 graduates. The school's in-person graduation was canceled due to pandemic. (submitted)

Are the newest nurses ready?

Like the start of her career, Martin’s graduation from Baptist College of Health Science wasn’t what she envisioned.

The in-person event was canceled so faculty and staff held a graduation parade. Students drove through a procession of cheers, pom-poms, and homemade posters with messages of support. There was a photo op stop with the school mascot and a pre-packed ‘graduation in a box’ with their diploma, honor cords, and special gifts. President Dr. Betty Sue McGarvey recorded a video to officially confer the degrees.

“We felt like maybe it was going to be an anti-climactic finish, but [it] was very special,” said Martin.

McGarvey credits the planning committee--Megan Bursi, Sarah Biggs, Jeremy Wilkes, and Erica Chandler--with the event’s success. Campus closed and classes moved online one month prior, but 84 of their 99 graduates returned for the parade.

Are their newest nurses prepared to work despite an unconventional end to their college careers? McGarvey said absolutely.

“I think they’re well prepared, and I think we’re seeing a lot of team solidarity in the healthcare workforce,” she said.

“They’re joining the ranks of heroes.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.