Future-Proofing Nursing Skills: How to Prepare Before the Next Pandemic

Future-Proofing Nursing Skills: How to Prepare Before the Next Pandemic

Since the COVID-19 pandemic and over the past four years, both medical professionals and members of the public have learned a lot about the measures that need to be taken to protect the most vulnerable in any community. While we are all breathing a sigh of relief that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, many nurses are already starting to prepare for the next pandemic.

The Effect of Pandemics on Nurses

As the COVID-19 virus swept throughout the country in the early weeks of spring 2020, nurses were truly on the front line. They were the first medical professionals to greet patients presenting with devastating symptoms of the mystery illness, and they witnessed the impact of the virus firsthand. Thus, the pandemic’s effect on nurses was catastrophic.

According to the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, the pandemic had an incredibly negative impact on nurses, with staff shortages resulting in physical exhaustion and burnout while managing excessive caseloads of patients who were sick, dying and isolated left these healthcare professionals feeling hopeless and despondent.

The effects of the pandemic in the nursing field were far-reaching, including:

  • A decline in enrollment in online nursing programs, due in large part to struggles with the shift to virtual education and the extreme stress nurses were under at the time.
  • A substantial decline in the workforce at a rate that was faster than expected. Nurses who were not otherwise planning to retire decided to end their careers, while many others took a step back and began to pursue other professional opportunities.
  • A significant rise in mental health concerns among nurses. Many nurses were forced to work in areas in which they were not as experienced, not to mention the trauma of the pandemic on a daily basis. With a steep rise in patients — and shortage of personal protective equipment — nurses reported feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and angry.

The Role of Nurses During a Pandemic

A pandemic is defined as an outbreak of an infectious disease that occurs around the entire world. In effect, this is a global disaster, and one that nurses have to face head-on. During a pandemic, nurses are often called upon to be first respondents, with their responsibilities entailing:

  • Evaluating patients and determining what type of care they need.
  • Working to educate the public and provide information about the best steps to take during a pandemic.
  • Allocating personal protective equipment accordingly, ensuring that staff members have the equipment they need to care for patients as safely as possible.
  • Monitoring outbreak conditions in the community and collaborating with staff about the best ways to address the current level of disease in the area.
  • Providing family members and relatives with accurate information about the patient’s condition.

Challenges Faced by Nurses in the Last Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic was declared in the early months of 2020, and the health emergency was rescinded in spring of 2023. Over the course of those three years, nurses encountered numerous challenges both professionally and personally. Some of the top challenges nurses faced during the last pandemic include:

  • Staff shortages where nurses were obligated to work excessive hours under incredibly stressful conditions.
  • PPE shortages that left them feeling vulnerable and unprotected.
  • Increased patient volumes as people flooded the emergency rooms feeling fearful and often presenting with symptoms of the disease.
  • Unknown information about the virus, making it difficult to create effective treatment plans.
  • Severe mental stress, increasing episodes of anxiety and depression. High levels of burnout among nurses were reported throughout the pandemic.

Skills Nurses Need to Develop for Future Pandemics

Though the most recent pandemic is not an experience any nurse would like to repeat, the reality is that there was much to be learned from the experience. How nurses prepare for pandemics has changed drastically as a result, and now, most nurses in the medical field are focused on developing these skills to be prepared for whatever the future might have in store.

Ability to Adapt to Changing Protocols

Change was the name of the game during the COVID-19 pandemic. The protocols surrounding masking are a prime example. When the virus first arrived in the United States and the threat of PPE shortages was very real, the government told citizens to avoid stockpiling masks and to avoid wearing masks. Soon, however, they realized that masking was the key to slowing the spread of the virus, and it became the law of the land. By the end of the pandemic, the protocols had shifted to encouraging members of the public to wear medical masks, not homemade cloth masks. The mixed messaging was at times confusing and exhausting, causing division throughout the entire pandemic.

Today, nurses are learning how to be more adaptable in the face of changing protocols, and they know how to better communicate those changes to their patients. Clear, concise communication will be the key to success during any future pandemics.

Enhanced Knowledge of Infection Control

With an airborne virus like COVID-19, there were many unknowns about how the virus was spreading and what it would take to contain it. Now, with enhanced knowledge of infection control, nurses can prepare accordingly and help clarify any misunderstandings in the future. While hand-washing, mask wearing and social distancing may be necessary in the future, there may be less swirling confusion about what measures work best.

Handling Stress and Burnout

As the world watched nurses and doctors grow burdened by the pressure of the previous pandemic, it became clear that mental health care would play an important role in any future emergency. Nurses now know that they can — and should — prioritize their own mental well-being, as this is the only way they can continue providing patients with the comprehensive care they need.

Telehealth Proficiency

Perhaps one of the most positive impacts to come from the last pandemic was the rise in telehealth technology. Today, nurses and other medical professionals are better equipped to navigate telehealth technology tools and resources, making it easier to deliver patients personalized care in a safer, more accessible way.

The Importance of Upskilling and Expanding the Nursing Workforce

Before the next public health crisis arises, nurses should focus on upskilling and expanding the workforce.

How Upskilling Enhances Healthcare Delivery

Upskilling is defined as the process of offering nurses educational opportunities and professional development experiences that allow them to specialize in the field and learn the most advanced nursing skills. According to Supplemental Health Care, by investing in this type of continuing education, healthcare facilities will find that their retention rates and patient outcomes improve.

Exploring New Roles for Nurses in Pandemic Response

In response to the pandemic, new roles for nurses emerged, including those in telehealth, patient education and staff training. Nurses have found fresh and creative ways to apply their skills in an ever-evolving healthcare field.

The Role of Advanced Practice Registered Nurses in a Pandemic

Described as the premier servant leaders of the COVID-19 pandemic per the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, advanced practice registered nurses played a vital role in tackling the global public health crisis. Those who had completed an online master’s in nursing programs not only worked directly with patients who needed specialized care, but they also worked to mentor and train other nurses throughout the crisis.

Need for Regulatory Changes to Enhance the Scope of Practice

According to the American Nurses Association, enhancing and expanding the scope of practice for nurses is critical in order to prepare for the next pandemic. Regulatory changes are required to provide nurses with a broad scope of practice, allowing them to leverage their knowledge and skill set to the fullest extent possible.

Crisis Standards of Care in Nursing

During a public health crisis — such as a pandemic or a natural disaster — crisis standards of care may be implemented. Amid these extreme situations of significant trauma or limited resources, nurses must prioritize the best steps to take.

Adapting Standards of Care During a Pandemic

Throughout a pandemic, particularly one resulting from a novel virus, nurses will have to adapt quickly to different standards of care. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, nurses had to shift quickly in order to care for patients in spite of a significant PPE shortage and guidelines that seemed to change by the hour.

The Impact of Crisis Standards on Patient Care and Nurse Well-Being

Crisis standards of care often conflict with the traditional, patient-centered approach nurses have long relied on. Consequently, some nurses feel significant stress when trying to adapt to these standards and must prioritize their own well-being during these moments of crisis.

How Telehealth Is Transforming the Nursing Workforce

Although it was once seen as a futuristic and even ineffective form of caring for patients, telehealth has become a viable solution to many ongoing healthcare challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Rise of Telehealth During the Pandemic

Telehealth quickly became the best option for most people during the pandemic, whether or not they were suffering from symptoms of COVID-19. It was seen as the safest and most accessible way to provide healthcare and aided social distancing efforts around the country.

How Telehealth Is Shaping Future Nursing Practice

While telehealth was initially prioritized during the pandemic as a social distancing measure, nurses quickly found that it offered other various benefits, too. Telehealth is shaping the future of nursing by:

  • Making it easier for nurses to communicate with patients, especially those who are unable to come into the office.
  • Allowing nurses to provide individual patients and groups of people with educational programming.
  • Increasing patient engagement levels and helping nurses feel more connected to their patients.

Retention, Well-Being, and Adverse Effects on the Nursing Workforce

Improving retention rates is a priority in the healthcare field, particularly after an onslaught of nurses left the profession or retired early during the COVID-19 pandemic. By emphasizing nurse well-being and offering opportunities for professional development, healthcare facilities could work to reverse the adverse effects of the pandemic on the nursing workforce. Providing nurses with a safe, inclusive and welcoming work environment, while recognizing that they need to feel mentally well to effectively practice as a nurse, can help healthcare facilities recruit and retain the top talent in the field.

How Can Nurses Prepare for the Psychological Impact of Another Pandemic?

No one wants to think about another pandemic, but it is in the best interest of all nurses to prepare for the possibility. According to UNICEF, nurses can prepare for the potential of another pandemic by:

  • Upskilling and developing advanced nursing skills now. Nurses who feel more confident and prepared are less likely to be stressed about an impending pandemic.
  • Getting the support they need now. Working with a counselor or therapist can help nurses begin to process the impact of the previous pandemic and prepare for the possibility of a future global public health crisis.

Further Your Nursing Career at Marymount University

At Marymount University, we pride ourselves on offering nursing degree programs that focus on developing the most in-demand nursing skills. From our Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree to our online MSN-FNP program, we can deliver the educational experience you need to take your career to the next level.

Looking to elevate your nursing know-how? Request more information about our online master’s in nursing programs today.