Could nursing student changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic signal a permanent change?
The option for third-year nursing students to work as part of front-line teams during the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a long-term re-evaluation of the contribution of nursing students to healthcare delivery
The pressure imposed by COVID-19 on already overstretched and underfunded services has meant that third-year nursing students from all branches are being given the option to work as part of the ‘nursing numbers’ rather than in a supernumerary role.
In preregistration nursing programmes, academic and practical components of study have equal status. Like all nursing students, those wanting to be registered as a learning disability nurse are expected to undertake a total of 4,600 hours of study, split into 2,300 hours of theory and 2,300 hours in practice learning settings, commonly referred to as placements.
Drastic response required to support health and social care workforce
The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) has long supported the clinical development of nursing students through the protection of their learning experiences by ensuring that while in practice students hold supernumerary status.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has required a drastic response to support the health and social care workforce. Among others, the NMC identified nursing students within the final six months of their programme of study as able to help ensure patient care could continue. These students will be remunerated and receive placement hours for time spent clinically, but will not have supernumerary status.
Preregistration applicants want to make a positive difference
While this practice learning model is voluntary, the values and motivations of most nursing students may push them towards this option. Research has shown preregistration nursing programme applicants overwhelmingly wish to care for people and make a positive difference to them. Working to help ease the impact of this unprecedented crisis offers that opportunity.
While the evidence tells us that application of supernumerary status across practice learning areas is inconsistent, it has been suggested that ensuring students have the space and opportunity to develop their skills, enhances learning and capability.
Even with supernumerary status, nursing students from all branches are expected to contribute to the delivery of patient care, although this has always required adequate support and supervision, dependent on student need.
The new practice learning model does not remove the requirement for support and supervision, but it does relax and increase the autonomous contribution that learning disability nursing students can make while increasing the opportunity for indirect supervision.
While it is expected that this approach will only last for the duration of the national emergency, it would be useful to evaluate its impact more deeply. Such an evaluation should consider the contribution final-year students were able to make, as well as their experience and the experience of the health and social care teams they joined.
While the evidence tells us that application of supernumerary status across practice learning areas is inconsistent, its has been suggested that ensuring students have the space and opportunity to develop their skills, enhances learning and capability.
Patient care will always be the priority
Most importantly an evaluation will have to consider the experience of the students and the patients cared for. While patient care will always be the priority, and the ability to develop and learn as a nursing student should never be compromised, what if it works?
Could this response to a worldwide emergency lead us to reconsider how we value the contribution of nursing students to healthcare delivery? Perhaps it could lead us to permanently enhance the status of final-placement nursing students so they can be full-fledged members of the workforce.
Sam Abdulla is field leader and lecturer in learning disabilities at Edinburgh Napier University and a member of the Learning Disability Practice editorial advisory board
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