What will — and won't — change about nursing in 50 years

The technology healthcare will use in 50 years is impossible to predict, but nursing leaders agree that the one thing that will not change is the importance of caring individuals at the bedside.

Many leaders predict nurses will mostly leave the hospital setting to do more community work and hospitals will be used only for the sickest of the sick.

Here are seven nurse leaders on other ways nursing will change over the next 50 years.

Editor's note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Vi-Anne Antrum, DNP, RN. Chief Nursing Officer at Cone Health (Greensboro, N.C.): In 50 years, much of nursing's work is being delivered through technology-enabled applications virtually and in the home. Hospitals are utilized very sparingly and only for the very sickest patients. Most of nursing's work focuses on coordinating preventive care in collaboration with consumers, providers, technology and community partnerships. Advanced practice nurses are the backbone of primary care and coordinate with other team members for the dwindling complex care needs. New areas of nursing have emerged steeped in research, generational AI, augmented reality, individualized medical interventions, and other technologies that have been developed.

We are predominantly focused on well care versus sick care, with more touch points to our panel of consumers. There has been a fundamental shift in consumers being drivers of their health. Nurses are now the most trusted profession 70-plus years running for their ethics, morals and honesty. Nursing schools have transformed curricula into specialty tracks for our areas of need. The interprofessional care delivery models certainly helped everyone contribute to strong outcomes back during our nursing shortage.

Dianne Aroh, RN. Senior Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health (Seattle): From care delivery to staffing models, changes in the field of nursing have significant impacts on our healthcare systems. As we work to provide high-quality care to our communities, we must also look for ways to improve and optimize the way we support our care teams and nurses. As technology continues to advance, I believe we will see further technology integrations in the field of nursing. It will be vital that the focus of these programs remains foremost on how they will support our bedside teams and improve patient care.

Kelly Hefti, MSN, RN. Vice President of Nursing at Sanford Health (Sioux Falls, S.D.): Looking back 30 years ago when I started my nursing career, we used to adjust an IV with a roller clamp and we manually counted drips. Now, a sophisticated library lives inside a pump that allows medication delivery with not only precision but important safety features. With that said, I'm not sure we can fully comprehend how technology will advance nursing in the future, from how we use technology to educate and train new nurses to how it will continue to improve care delivery for patients. With current advancements in technology, we are able to prevent disease, identify disease earlier or offer not previously available treatments, so people with certain health conditions are living longer. These advancements have influenced care needs with nurses taking care of more complex, very sick patients. I think this will continue to evolve, our nurses will be caring for patients who have a disease or ailment that could have a new, innovative treatment option, which is exciting to think about. Amid all of these amazing technological advancements, one thing that won't change is the fact that we'll still need incredible, caring, compassionate individuals who are called to the profession of nursing. 

Susan Hernandez, DNP, RN. Associate Vice President and Health System Chief Nurse Executive at UT Southwestern Medical Center (Dallas): Nurses have the opportunity right now to not only embrace technology into our practice in ways never seen before, but also to create some of those innovative approaches to care. Human touch and intelligence will still be needed, but in different ways. Additionally, the balance in life and work will look different. Nurses have an expectation of more flexibility in the future. Twelve-hour shifts shouldn't be mandatory but should still remain an option for those who like that lifestyle. If done well, the nurse of the future will be able to select their schedule and even work location to meet the needs of their current stage of life. Retaining clinical care nurses in the acute care setting could hinge on our ability as a profession to be more flexible in our thinking.

Melissa Kline, DNP, RN. Chief Nursing Officer at MetroHealth (Cleveland): I think we will see more nurses embedded in settings that we don't typically see them in. There's a bit of a movement in schools recognizing how important nursing and healthcare is to the well-being of their students. So many school systems have decreased the number of staff nurses they have, but I'm starting to see that number go up a little bit. 

Going back a little bit to our roots with public health nursing, I think we'll see more nurses out in the community doing preventative work to prevent people from having to go to the hospital and working on those social determinants of health. I think on the hospital side, it is only going to continue to get more technical with technology and advances, and will continue to be the only the sickest of the sick in the hospital. So I think nurses will spend more time in people's homes, providing support to families, providing some virtual care. It's hard to even imagine what kind of devices we'll have in 50 years.

Julia Mason, DNP, RN. Senior Vice President Patient Care Services and Chief Nursing Officer Hospital Division at MetroHealth (Cleveland): Bedside registered nurses will be even more important than ever as the care team evolves. This will include the need for additional virtual nurse team members as well as support roles such as LPNs and PCNAs led by the RN. We will also see the increased implementation of technology, including predictive analytics to enhance understanding of the deterioration of conditions for patients, and bedside automation to assist with turning, ambulation, toileting, monitoring and expansion of the hospitals at home model with the support of high-definition cameras, remote IV pumps, and remote oxygen and cardiac monitoring.

These changes will require that we continue to expand education and training for care providers, including increasing the number of advanced practice nurses leading care teams both at home and inpatient setting as well as more master's- and doctoral-prepared nurses at the bedside. Care may change, but caring will not. Nurses will continue to lead innovation and research that improves lives using science and the art of nursing.

Jennifer Shull, DNP, RN. Chief Nurse Executive at Kettering (Ohio) Health: Technology and artificial intelligence will be integrated into care models to support the nurse in decision-making and providing care. Care teams will include different roles to support the nurses as they function at the top of their license to enable them to coordinate and ensure safe, effective patient care. What will remain the same is the art and heart of nursing that makes us the most trusted profession.

Syl Trepanier, DNP, RN. Chief Nursing Officer at Providence (Renton, Wash.): In 50 years, it's safe to assume the practice of nursing will be drastically different. Artificial intelligence and other technologies will lead to the advent of new roles that will allow our nurses to practice at the top of their licenses. In doing so, health systems will learn how to better leverage the entire healthcare team instead of relying on an all-RN model like we do today. Nurses will be recognized for their critical thinking and abilities to ensure holistic care, although most nursing tasks as we know them today will be a thing of the past. Our immediate access to data analytics will generate evidence-based practices much faster, and nurses will be able to provide care globally through virtual modalities. The future is bright and exciting.

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