The network for general practice nurses of the future

How student ambassadors are helping to promote the specialty as a first-choice career

How student ambassadors are helping to promote the specialty as a first-choice career

Picture: iStock

‘Before I had a sign-off placement in general practice, I had never even thought of it as a career,’ admits Sarah O’Donnell, a lead general practice nurse (GPN) at a medical centre in Bradford. ‘But then I instantly fell in love with it.’

Ms O'Donnell is the chair of a new network that aims to encourage newly qualified nurses to make general practice nursing their first choice – just as it was for her.

After graduating from the University of Bradford in 2014, she opted to pursue a GPN post as soon as she qualified, a decision which baffled many of her peers.

‘As a student, I did placements on some great wards, but none of them ever set me on fire in the same way’

Sarah O’Donnell, general practice nurse and student nurse network chair

‘People were saying, “you’re not allowed to do that” and “you have to have experience first”,’ she says. ‘There was also a lot of stigma around becoming a GPN. Some even told me I was ending my career already.’

Despite the criticisms, she followed her degree with a six-month GPN course that her university had just introduced.

‘There for people when they need you’

‘As a student, I did placements on some great wards, but none of them ever set me on fire in the same way,’ says Ms O’Donnell. ‘I wanted to get to know people and be with them throughout their lives – that’s what you get as a GPN.

‘I love it when people make huge changes for their health and you can see what a difference that makes. You’re there for people when they need you – and not just when they’re poorly.’

The GPN Student Nurse Network, launched in October 2018, is funded by NHS England as part of its ten-point action plan for general practice nursing.

Alongside promoting the specialty, the plan’s aims are to increase preregistration nurse placements in general practice and establish inductions and preceptorships to attract newly qualified nurses.

Raising the profile

The idea to set up a special student network came from NHS England primary care nursing lead Karen Storey, who admits that finding general practice placements for nursing students has required concerted effort.

Karen Storey: ‘Still not as many
placements as we'd like.’

‘It’s still not as many as we’d like, but once they’re there, they tell us they love it,’ she says. ‘They immediately feel that they’re making a difference to people’s lives. We want to capitalise on those experiences, challenging any negative perceptions.’  

The network is also open to newly qualified nurses working in primary care. It now has 22 ambassadors in regions throughout England.

‘Nursing students have the biggest voices, so we need to get them shouting about this,’ says Ms O’Donnell.

‘About a third of the GPN workforce is going to disappear in the next two years as they retire, and we have no one stepping up. We’re celebrating general practice nursing and raising its profile, helping people to know that this is an option.’

Historically, many surgeries have sought applicants for GPN roles with at least two years’ nursing experience, but Ms O’Donnell thinks that’s beginning to change.

‘Working on the wards requires a different of skills,’ she says. ‘So even if I’d done two years in a hospital setting, I wouldn’t have gained the skills I needed to move into this role. We just need practices to say yes, we’ll take you.’

My placement challenged what I’d heard about practice nursing

As an adult nursing student, Claire Carmichael found the experience of working in a local general practice an eye-opener.

‘It was fantastic,’ says Ms Carmichael, who is now in her third year at Birmingham City University. ‘It met all my expectations and more. I hadn’t realised just how much nurses working here did.’

Claire Carmichael.  Picture: Tim George

Even before she started her nursing degree, she was keen to experience working in a general practice, so jumped at the opportunity of an eight-week placement last year. ‘I learned so much and I felt my skills really begin to develop,’ says Ms Carmichael.

As a GPN Student Nurse Network ambassador, she is helping to raise awareness of the specialty as a future career option.

‘Before my own placement, I’d heard a lot of myths about working in general practice,’ she says. ‘It’s seen as a place where nurses go to retire and there’s this image of them sitting round all day. It’s not true. I’ve never worked so hard.’

One-to-one care

She shadowed her mentor at the start of the placement, but by the second week she was seeing a couple of patients in her own clinic. ‘My mentor asked if I was comfortable enough to do that,’ says Ms Carmichael. ‘I’d never done it before and it was a bit scary to begin with, but I knew the team was always there to help and support me if I needed them. It was an amazing feeling.’

Other attractions of the role include having more one-to-one time with patients. ‘Even though your time is restricted to 15 minutes each, I felt I could give better care,’ says Ms Carmichael. ‘On a busy ward you’re seeing a lot of patients at once and I don’t feel I can give my best. But working in general practice, I can give my all to that one patient.’

She also enjoys the variety and being able to treat patients more holistically. ‘You have to be constantly thinking ahead,’ says Ms Carmichael. ‘You’re considering a patient’s psychological, social and physical needs as well as any safeguarding issues - it’s the whole picture. No two days are ever the same.’

When she qualifies in January 2020, she hopes to take up a practice nurse post at the GP surgery where she did her placement.

Ambassador role

As an ambassador for the network Ms Carmichael attends various events, including student welcome fairs. She also blogs, makes videos and uses social media to highlight what general practice nurses do.

‘Dispelling the myths is what drew me towards this role,’ she says. ‘Students have already contacted me saying they had never thought of this as a career choice before, but now they’re looking into it. It’s really good.’


Take on a student or newly qualified nurse

The student network has been warmly welcomed by RCN general practice nursing forum chair and Queen’s Nurse Marie Therese Massey. ‘I’m all for any strategy that will encourage nursing students to consider general practice as a first destination,’ she says.

RCN general practice nursing forum
chair Marie Therese Massey.

‘I’d also encourage general practice nurses and practice managers to see the value of employing a newly qualified registrant, and opening up their practice to more nursing students.’

At this year’s RCN congress, which takes place in Liverpool from 19-23 May, the forum plans to host a workshop offering advice for anyone considering a career in general practice nursing.

‘There’ll be some tips on how to tailor your CV,’ says Ms Massey. ‘Nurses are already contacting us to say they’ve got an interview, or would like to apply for a role, and they want to know what to do next.

‘They worry that they’re not able to do some aspects of the role, but we encourage them to focus on what they can do, then build on that.’

Ms Massey would like to see general practices replicating what many trusts already do in terms of recruitment.

‘They will say to students on placement, “we have vacancies, would you consider applying when you’ve qualified?”. At the moment, it doesn’t seem to dawn on general practices to do the same. We need to get on the ball.’

To find out more about the network, including how to become an ambassador, click here

Lynne Pearce is a health journalist

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