THESE days, when a nursing student at the University of Iowa fields a question about a drug, “the answer is often, ‘I don’t know, but give me a few seconds,’ and she pulls out her phone,” according to Joann Eland, an associate professor there.
In just a few years, technology has revolutionized what it means to go to nursing school, in ways more basic — and less obvious to the patient — than learning how to use the latest medical equipment. Nursing schools use increasingly sophisticated mannequins to provide realistic but risk-free experience; in the online world Second Life, students’ avatars visit digital clinics to assess digital patients. But the most profound recent change is a move away from the profession’s dependence on committing vast amounts of information to memory. It is not that nurses need to know less, educators say, but that the amount of essential data has exploded.
“There are too many drugs now, too many interactions, too many tests, to memorize everything you would need to memorize,” says Ms. Eland, a specialist in uses of technology. “We can’t rely nearly as much as we used to on the staff knowing the right dose or the right timing.”
Five years ago, most American hospital wards still did not have electronic patient records, or Internet connections. Now, many provide that access with computers not just at a central nurse’s station but also at the patient’s bedside. The latest transition is to smartphones and tablet computers, which have become mandatory at some nursing schools.
“We have a certain set of apps that we want nursing students to have on their handheld devices — a book of lab tests, a database of drugs, even nursing textbooks,” says Helen R. Connors, executive director of the Kansas University Center for Health Informatics. Visiting alumni, she says, are shocked to see students not carrying physical textbooks to class.
But technology carries risks as well. So much data is available that students can get overwhelmed, and educators say that a growing part of their work is teaching how to retrieve information quickly and separate what is credible, relevant and up-to-date from what is not. (Hint: look for the seal of approval of Health on the Net.)
They also worry that students rely too much on digital tools at the expense of patient interaction and learning.“There’s a danger that having that technology at the point of care at the bedside creates a misperception that students don’t need to know their stuff,” says Jennifer Elison, chairwoman of the nursing department at Carroll College in Helena, Mont.
“I get worried when I hear about nursing programs that want to replace the person-to-person clinical experience with increased hours with simulation,” she says. “We hear sometimes that it feels to patients that the computers are more important than they are.”
Then there’s the patient privacy issue in the era of blogging, Facebook and Twitter. How to properly use social media has become standard in the curriculum, thanks in part to what is known in nursing circles as “the placenta incident.” Four nursing students at a community college in Kansas posted Facebook photos of themselves with a human placenta. The students were expelled in 2010, and later reinstated, but the episode showed how murky the boundaries of privacy and professionalism can be. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing recently published guidelines on social media.
“That is the new hot issue now,” Ms. Elison says. “That’s been hard, because this is a generation that immediately hits that send button.”