In a highly technical environment, radiation oncology nurses’ role on the interprofessional team is both critical and flourishing. But it’s also ever-evolving, speakers explained during a session on April 27, 2021, for the 46th Annual ONS Congress™.

Maintain Relevance in a Changing Environment

As advanced practice providers, ancillary personnel, and even artificial intelligence (AI) robots are assuming aspects of the role, are radiation oncology nurses at risk for potential replacement or, at the very least, dilution? In a word, no. Those trends aren’t exclusive to radiation oncology nursing, Susan Weiss Behrend, RN, MSN, AOCN®, from Fox Chase Cancer Center, said—they’re occurring in other settings as well.

She explained that the question isn’t who is going to replace you, but rather what opportunity is being presented for you to ensure your expertise and knowledge will continue to be relevant and that your commitment to patient care remains paramount.

The session’s title, “’Whisper Down the Linac’: A Conversation About Transformation and Innovation in Radiation Oncology Nursing,” is a nod to the phrase “whisper down the lane,” which refers to how stories or gossip may completely change as they’re shared to the end of the lane. Instead of giving in to rumor or feeling threatened by change, Behrend advised that nurses reframe the question.

“Wherever we are in our careers, we should be thinking about who is going to follow us,” Behrend said. “What have we done to mentor new nurses? The future of our profession the only way you remain relevant, and that lies in your own hands.”

Behrend said nurses must take responsibility for their own replacements through education and mentorship. When vacancies appear, the profession must be prepared to replace them so that those roles are not lost.

Embrace—and Shape—New Technologies

Machines will never take the place of nursing practice, Behrend said, adding that AI is nurses’ “BFF [best friend forever] of the very near future.” AI provides clinically significant information in large data sets, creates algorithms to uncover relevant clinical information, and uses self-correcting abilities to reduce therapeutic and diagnostic errors. Behrend argued that AI will not replace nursing, but it will enhance it. Nurses must advocate for themselves to be a part of the decision-making process and ensure a “blend of tech and touch.”

“Technology can actually liberate the nurses to coordinate advanced care,” she said, toning down the harried tasks and giving nurses the opportunity to focus on care and cure. She encouraged providing emerging technology as a part of educational curricula and supporting research on the cause and effect of technology so that it can be used as a helpful tool rather than seen as a threat.

“Machines are inherently human dependent, and they can help to put the emphasis on the nurse’s ability to provide critical thinking skills, clinical reasoning, and decision-making while delegating the rote tasks to the machine assistants,” Behrend said. 

Your Action Plan for Role Revolution

  • Think about who or what could replace the radiation therapy nurse model of care.
  • Identify functions that are duplicative.
  • Consider the percentage of time spent on custodial patient management.
  • Advocate to secure a prominent seat at all clinical meetings.
  • Publish to cultivate a consistently heard nursing voice.
  • Prepare for transformational change.

“Roles and responsibilities must be an integral part of all radiation therapy practice settings,” Behrend said. Nurses must be active participants within a collaborative team that can identify ways to enhance productivity and patient provider satisfaction. “Work on trust, communication, respect, inclusiveness, and purpose,” she said.