Teaching Nurses Online: Compassion, Empathy, and Care Skills in an Impersonal Medium

America has a large aging population, and medical staff are beginning to retire at a rate faster than they can be replaced. Hospitals and care facilities are losing many of their experienced staff just as demand on the healthcare system is increasing. The shortage of nurses and other staff is causing a lot of panic, and the healthcare industry is experimenting with different ways to attract and retain workers, including offering housing and large signing bonuses.

Because of this shortage, schools are trying to catch up to demand for graduates by offering alternative ways to study. Some colleges have begun to focus on developing robust online medical curriculums in order to both train new medical staff and to offer post-graduate continued education to existing professionals to help them keep up in such a difficult environment.

Online education has its challenges, though, especially for careers like nursing where dealing directly with patients comprises so much of the work. How do we teach the soft skills and emotional intelligence required to work in these roles? How do we test these in an online setting?

Teaching Empathy Online

Patient care outcomes depend greatly on not only the technical skills of their care providers, but also on their ability to understand, empathize, and educate. One of the major challenges that come with online education is a lack of face-to-face communication. It can be difficult to impart, and to test for, these soft skills in an online environment.

Luckily, online technology provides us with a number of teaching tools that not only offer students greater opportunities for participation, but also allow us to explore ideas like empathy.


Modern technology makes the delivery of material and collaboration over the internet much easier. Discussion forums, where students can share ideas and discuss coursework, are just the tip of the iceberg. Video conferencing and streaming make lectures and group work a great deal easier.


However, for nursing in particular, the ability to perform group work isn’t enough on its own. According to a study that appeared in an issue of “The Internet and Higher Education” instructors are struggling with designing effective assessment methods and with providing students an “online authentic learning experiences that relate to real-world nursing situations” — presenting clear challenges for both the healthcare industry and the graduates entering into it.


New technology might be on the verge of tackling these challenges. VR technology has made several interesting developments that allow users to step into the shoes of someone with a disability. Previously extremely expensive and impractical, some developments such as Google Cardboard are making VR use in an education setting more viable. It’s a strategy unlikely to be ready to implement for large scale online courses, but it poses an interesting potential solution.

Preparing Nurses for Online Care Delivery

On the other hand, online nursing education prepares students for a developing trend in healthcare that other professionals may not be ready for: Rural areas of the U.S. are increasingly finding themselves locked in “hospital deserts” — a situation that occurs when rural hospitals close and the next closest facility is 30 miles or more away. This can present life-threatening circumstances in cases of emergency, but it also makes everyday life and preventative health more difficult. Doctors’ offices and other practitioners are also disappearing. Efforts are being conducted by public health researchers to tackle the issues that prevent vulnerable communities from accessing healthcare, but the challenge is great.


One solution to this shortage in rural areas is telehealth, which a number of medical professionals and institutions are experimenting with. For more routine medical needs, patients can access a professional remotely, receive advice, and even prescription orders that they can take to be filled. Online courses are in a unique position to train nurses in the details of this type of care, which could prove to be an invaluable asset as the healthcare worker crisis develops.

Online education of nurses certainly has its challenges and bumps to smooth over, but the modern nurse increasingly relies on the kinds of skills that online education can deliver. In the meantime, technology may provide us with ways to maintain high standards of teaching and assessment.

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