Student nurse placements: Everyone wins!

By Nick Buchan, APNA PR/Corporate Affairs Advisor 

Source: APNA Primary Times Winter 2022 (Volume 22, Issue 1)


Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has left many primary health care (PHC) nurses feeling overwhelmed and under-resourced. However, some nurses have found satisfaction in supervising a student nurse. This has not only provided additional support with structured high-volume clinical tasks, such as immunisation, but is also helping to build the next generation of qualified PHC nurses to meet Australia's future health care needs. 

Nurse supervisor Maree Lansdowne thought she’d just about seen it all during her 36 years of nursing. However, she found coping with the past two years (and counting) of COVID-19 something else entirely. 

Like the rest of her colleagues at Traralgon’s Breed Street Clinic, Maree struggled to manage the constant flood of patients wanting pandemic-related vaccinations, boosters, treatment and information on top of her normal daily workload of screenings, wound care, rehabilitation and preventative health. The work seemed never-ending. 

Nurse supervisor Maree Lansdowne 'COVID overwhelmed our clinic – we were incredibly swamped by patients,' Maree said.  

'COVID put a substantial amount of pressure on an already busy, complex working environment. Nurses are the ones on the front line who deal with people seeking help when they are confused about COVID vaccines and boosters and when the rules change.' 

'It left me tired and exhausted – I don't think you'd find a nurse who would say any differently,' she said.  

Maree certainly wasn’t alone. According to APNA’s 2021 Workforce Survey, COVID-19's burden has left 4 out of 5 PHC nurses feeling exhausted or stressed at work, and almost one in 4 nurses plan to leave their job in coming years.

At the same time, the focus on COVID has created a backlog of scheduled preventative screening and disease-management activity that has not been carried out. According to APNA’s August 2021 COVID-19 ‘PulseCheck’ Survey, almost half of the PHC nurses who responded were undertaking less chronic disease and healthy aging management activity in August 2021 compared to May.2 Meanwhile, almost half of the survey respondents were undertaking less preventative health and screening activities over the same period. 

'Primary health care has evolved monumentally over the years,' Maree said. 'When I started this journey, you could comfortably do the whole day with just one nurse. Now you literally just couldn’t.' 

PHC nurses like Maree have been calling for extra resources and support to help manage the workload. However, governments at all levels were investing into other sectors, leaving little on offer for PHC settings.   

 

Additional support

Instead, Maree found additional support with structured high-volume clinical tasks by supervising a nursing student she found via APNA’s Student Nurse Placement Program (SNPP).

The SNPP allows APNA to work directly with universities and tertiary institutions to provide high-quality nursing placements for undergraduate and postgraduate students in dynamic PHC settings, including general practice, aged care, schools, and community health. 

APNA’s national SNPP program shines a light on PHC for student nurses and helps to future-proof the PHC nursing workforce by offering students the opportunity to experience PHC nursing in a range of urban, regional, rural or remote locations. 

'[The SNPP] made a huge difference,' Maree said. 'General practice nursing is a really good environment for nursing students to develop some confidence and independent practice.'  

'We're in a small environment, everyone can see what's going on and it promotes that independence.'  

'It's such a pleasure to watch them grow during that time and to initiate tasks. We get them all doing some of the more complex wound care and things like that because it's all the learning experience,' Maree said. 

Student Irene Thorsen Student Irene Thorsen is in her 3rd year of studying nursing and midwifery at Monash University and did a nursing placement alongside Maree at Breed Street. She said her placement in the clinic really opened her eyes to the possibilities available to student nurses in PHC settings. 

'I really enjoyed the student nursing placement, more than I expected to,' Irene said. 'I learned so much, being in there and learning the practical things.' 

'You go in expecting to be thrown in the deep end, but when I actually got in there, I understood just how important primary health care nurses are,' Irene said. ‘They dealt with a lot of their normal responsibilities, such as health screenings and wounds, as well as being overrun with COVID vaccinations. That was a whole new job for them, but they didn’t have any extra staff to do it.' 

'I was given quite a bit of responsibility and trust during my placement, which I appreciated. I helped with patient screenings, health histories, blood pressure monitors, ECGs – the things that take time. I was able to do a lot of new patient assessments. I sat in on diabetes assessments, I sat in on antenatal assessments,' Irene said. 

'I also had good exposure to wounds on this placement. I think everyone needs to know how to deal with wounds, so all-up I think it was just a really valuable hands-on placement.' 

Irene said she would now seriously consider a career in PHC nursing because of her placement. 

'I think there's a viewpoint that you get more exposure to different things in bigger hospitals. But when you're in that community setting, the nurses are constantly reading up on different things. I think that you do get enough exposure there,' Irene said.  

'It's exciting to think that in primary health care you're always learning, and that's what I want in my career, having to always learn, seeing new things. I do absolutely think that there is a career in community health, that's definitely possible.' 

 

SNPP growing rapidly

The SNPP is a national program and is growing rapidly, having placed students in PHC settings across five states. Almost 200 clinics are already involved, accepting students from 6 universities and 2 TAFEs and other educational institutions. The program has placed 855 students since 2020, and is on schedule to place more than 450 students this year alone. 

APNA President Karen Booth said that the SNPP scheme solved two issues – finding extra support for hard-pressed PHC nurses, while simultaneously creating a sustainable pipeline of qualified PHC nurses now to meet the health-care needs of the future. 

'Primary health care nurses work in general practice, in our schools, in community or correctional health, in rural and remote areas without a hospital, and in the resource-stretched aged-care sector. They have been left wondering – where is their back up, their extra resourcing?' Karen said.  

'Primary health care nurses desperately need help, and nursing students – many thousands of whom find themselves unable to get the clinical placement experience they need – are a ready-made solution.'   

'Nursing students can be utilised in primary health care to triage patients, help with health checks, and help registered nurses with vaccine clinics and other clinical activities. More importantly, supervised student nurses, using approved scripted checklists, could do welfare calls to people at home who are sick with COVID, and escalate treatment to registered nurses or general practitioners as needed,' Karen said. 

'What better way can there be to build the skill-set and professional capability of student nurses, and strengthen capacity in primary health care services, than to actively involve them in the greatest health challenge of recent times?' 

Maree said that taking on students such as Irene had had the added benefit of keeping her and her colleagues on their toes professionally. 

'I’d absolutely recommend taking on students. Even for the registered nursing team, it keeps currency of practice,' Maree said. 

'We can't instil our knowledge if we don't understand how things are being taught either. It keeps a really good currency of practice for existing practice nurses to understand what's going on out in the wide world, because you can get a bit insular in your environment. It doesn't matter what type of work you do.' 

'It is great experience for students such as Irene to be in this situation to see how we cope under such duress and how important it is to work together for the same thing to the same end for the same outcome. She will remember our learning experience forever.'   

To find out more about APNA’s Student Nurse Placement Program, visit our Career Pathways page. Alternatively, contact the APNA Student Nurse Placement Program team, on 03 9322 9500 or email placements@apna.asn.au

 

References  

1  APNA, ‘One in four primary health care nurses plans to quit’ [media release], 17 February 2022, accessed 12 April 2022. https://www.apna.asn.au/about/media/one-in-four-primary-health-care-nurses-plans-to-quit 

2 APNA, ‘COVID-19 ‘PulseCheck’ Survey’, Primary Times, 21(2), Summer 2021–2022, 34–35. 

 

The Australian Primary Health Care Nurses Association acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.


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