Helping U.S. Meet Demand for Better Healthcare: Online Education

Updated on March 6, 2016

NormWuBy Norm Wu

Healthcare in America is at a crossroads: An aging population and an influx of Americans who now receive coverage through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are demanding more from the healthcare system. The more than 75 million baby boomers will need more medical attention as they age, and more than 12 million Americans are newly insured through the ACA.

But while the need for healthcare is growing, physicians likely won’t be able to fulfill demand. More doctors are drifting away from primary care, and medical schools simply can’t produce the volume of doctors needed.

With a growing number of insured patients overwhelming the healthcare providers in many areas, the ranks of Nurse Practitioners (NP) will continue to expand to meet the need. But to accommodate the ensuing surge in graduate nursing students, online programs are needed to offer working nurses the ability to advance their careers and shoulder more responsibility for patient well-being.  

The growth of nurse practitioners

Enter nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs) who have been filling in the gaps left by a void of primary care physicians in underserved areas of the country. In fact, the number of NPs doubled in the past decade, rising to more than 205,000 by the end of 2014. 

The growth in NPs—and the added responsibilities placed upon them—has schools expanding their graduate nursing programs to online education, either to augment the campus experience or to help fill shortages by providing more convenient education opportunities. These schools are asking themselves an important question: How can we create an online curriculum that teaches the right skills and knowledge while identifying and correcting any gaps in learning?

NPs’ expanding role

In the past, NPs played the role of wellness coordinators, and treated common recurring and chronic, but stable, illnesses. Now, the job is growing more complex: in some areas of the US, doctors are leaving primary care behind because of low reimbursement rates, high administrative costs, and the resulting need to see too many patients for too little time to make the economics work. They are being replaced by clinics staffed by NPs. In this role, NPs treat patients with both acute and chronic ailments, many of which are treated with a blend of medications. NPs might see between 20 and 30 patients per day at a clinic, challenging their ability to deliver positive outcomes and proper healthcare treatments to all.

Today the lines between physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners are blurring.  Schools must expand training for NPs to address increasingly complicated questions from patients and employ the critical thinking skills necessary for accurate diagnoses. To ensure NPs are ready for these added responsibilities and to accommodate the growing graduate nursing classes, schools are using online programs and simulations that train NPs in the detective work of medical diagnosis.

Online patient simulation: a flexible option for NPs

Throughout the country, higher learning institutions are integrating online programs to complement their bricks-and-mortar classroom experience to meet demand from growing numbers of students, many of them non-traditional. In some cases, these programs exist primarily online, bringing students to campus only once or twice a year.

And the rise in online education programs for NP degrees is a necessity.  Nurses enrolled in these programs often work irregular schedules outside of the typical 9-to-5 workday.

Asynchronous, online experiential learning—enabled by interactive, virtual patient encounters—offers tremendous flexibility for these students, therefore, and allows them to continue to work to earn a living – while earning their degree.

Next step: measurement

That dichotomy has pushed educators to find new ways to develop student competencies and measure their achievement and understanding. How can they hone and refine the critical thinking skills that allow medical professionals to diagnose patients accurately? And just as important, how do educators in online programs gauge the critical thinking and clinical encounter skills of students on the other side of a computer screen?  Luckily new online simulation technology incorporates the ability to help educators do both.

Norm Wu is the CEO of i-Human Patients, Inc., a cloud-based patient simulation company. He has extensive experience as an engineer, entrepreneur and operating executive in healthcare and technology. He was formerly co-founder and CEO of two venture-backed companies: Qliance Medical Management, a health care services management company that pioneered the affordable direct primary care model, and Avantos Performance Systems, a pioneer in software for management and organizational effectiveness. Norm also served as Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer at the semiconductor company ZiLOG and spent a decade with the strategy and management consulting firm Bain and Company. After early responsibility for four hospital clients, as Vice President, he was responsible for approximately half of Bain’s global high technology business. As an investor and entrepreneur, Norm also helped to establish Alameda Capital, optical networking company LambdaFlex, and other early stage high technology companies. Norm earned both his BS and MS degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford University and his MBA from Harvard Business School. He enjoys exploring California’s wine country and traveling to new places.

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