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What to do when you're feeling like a spare part


Think you have little do while on placement? Think again …

One of the biggest concerns students have on their placement is being at a loose end.

“I feel like a spare part”, “I don’t know what to do,”, “I am standing around with my hands in my pockets” and “I don’t want to look like I haven’t any work” are some of the many anxieties we hear from students about placements.

So what do you do when you haven’t got a specific task or duty to perform? Mark Hillier, lecturer in nursing at Leeds Metropolitan University, says that’s easy – talk to patients.

“Student nurses often seem to think that unless they are physically doing a test or a task, they are not doing anything. But talking to patients is a hugely important part of therapy and will help patient recovery,” he says.

Leeds Metropolitan University’s Head of school of health and community studies Sue Sherwin agrees. “If there are patients, there’s work to be done,” she says. “Students shouldn’t underestimate how important it is for patients to talk about their hobbies, their families and their lives. Talking about their lives outside of their mental illness or long-term condition can really be a valuable part of wellbeing and promote hope. They can feel a person away from the diabetes or asthma. Students should not underestimate the importance of chatting to patients about things other than their condition or illness.”

Mr Hillier agrees. “When they are on placement, students have a rare opportunity to chat to patients, who can teach them a lot. A lot of qualified nurses would love to be able to have more time for that,” he says. “Work on your art of conversation skills and hone your talents at talking to patients and finding out about them.”

You should learn how to ask open questions – those that begin with who, what, where, when, how and why – which will be an important lifeskill as well as helping you construct dialogue with patients that is useful throughout your career. Note what works and what doesn’t with patients – what makes them feel more open to you and how your tone and body language affects their responsiveness.

Ms Sherwin says you can learn a lot from this aspect of the placement. “I hear this recurrent theme of students coming back and saying they have nothing to do. I say to them: ‘How many patients were on the ward or did you meet today?’. There’s always work to do while you have patients.”

Even without patients, Mr Hillier says you can fill your time by thinking laterally. “If you’re on an orthopaedic ward, do some reading around hip replacements. You can always find something that is relevant and meaningful to do on placement.”


Readers' comments (19)

  • Caroline Shepherd

    Having been told off for 'chatting' to a patient by the ward sister and my mentor, I have to say that from personal experience, chatting to patients has been viewed as 'doing nothing' as much as standing with your hands in your pockets. I was told I would learn 'nothing' from standing about chatting and that I would be better to go and clean the sluice rather than sit and talk to little Doris about her life.

    I think it is very important to speak to patients but I now feel guilty if I do so.

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  • I believe the nurses and hca uses the students as their spare hands.Most student dont really learn the nursing job becos,the nurses dont really work on the floor but paper work. they always want u to do the hca work.My first weeks in placement i was literally feeding patients and laying beds.I feel am not there to learn that, while my mentor was busy on the computer.Anyway, i had to step up and realise if i continue this way i wont learn anything.It is important for the students to know exactly why they are want to derive from their placement.Angel

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  • Caroline Shepherd

    Angel, I have found that really great Nurses do get stuck in with hands on care and provide the basics, helping to wash and dress, taking patients to the toilet and feeding etc, these are very important tasks that we should undertake every day whilst working as a nurse.

    The paperwork is important too but especially during the first weeks of placement I find that it is more important to get to grips with the basics and the general running of the ward than it is to sit at the nurses station doing referrals and writing in patient notes.

    What is wrong with spending the first few weeks washing and dressing, feeding and making beds? You will be required to do so when you are qualified? You can learn from every experience, especially regarding basic patient care, feeding patients is incredibly important, taking into consideration the reports that have recently been released about patients leaving hospital malnourished and schemes such as the red tray system and protected meal times, I hope you know that!

    It is important to know that you want to learn from placement and it is important that within your three years you learn about time management and paperwork, but every placement will require the same core basic skills, and a lot of patients will need some form of help with washing, feeding, toileting, changing positions etc. With an aging population it is becoming more and more important that Nurses have these core skills as more people will require help and assistance with their ADLs.

    Sorry for the little essay!

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  • George Kuchanny

    About to comment, I desisted after reading Little One - all said already.

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  • Made me quite sad to read Anon's comment, it makes me wonder what their concept of nursing is and why do they want to be a nurse?

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  • I am dismayed to read Anon's thoughtless, worrying, illiterate comments - thank goodness those are not the thoughts of the vast majority of nursing students. I think it would be more appropriate for Anon to spend her time productively whilst off duty to consider her rationale to nurse, rather than question the actual tasks she has been given.


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  • Gordon McGhee

    Dear Scandalous,
    Give the person a break. Perhaps their experience has only been as being left to feel they are a pair of hands. Perhaps they have not had the support of explanations about why learning these "basic" but vitally important skills are necessary.
    Not all mentors will be as supportive as you must be.
    I would suggest the fact they have posted something on NT would suggest they have an insight into learning and should definetely not be written off.

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  • Student to student, I'd advice you that if you have been assigned a task and you do not understand the benefit of carrying it out, ASK. There is nothing wrong in seeking understanding. This is why we go on placements to have an opportunity to learn and understand the reason behind the theory. I used to think that doing personal care all day is mundane but I realized that if I do not have the opportunity to do that, how am I going to know the integrity of that patient's skin?

    Its the same with feeding, I can make a difference to someone by taking my time to feed them as I do not have any pressing work to do. In doing this I could discover that the reason the patient was not eating before is because they are being made to eat in a rush therefore I have discovered another way to impact on the care of the patient whilst improving on their nutrition which to me makes a good reason why we are in nursing.

    If you do not have people to ask, carry out further reading around your area of location and you will always find additional literature to explain why we do what we do on the wards. I hope you find this useful.

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  • So far on placement I really do feel like a spare part. EVERY morning (which at the moment is all I'm working!) we have 4 staff nurses and 3 HCAs to deal with 17 beds. The 3 HCAs team up into a 1 and a 2 and charge off to make the beds and wash the patients super fast, then they do the obs, tea and coffee rounds and answer all the bells before I can even get there! In the meantime the nurses give out drugs and change dressings but as each nurse only has 4 patients this takes them about 20 mins. I can't follow more than one nurse as they all do everything at the same time, or there's other students on the ward too. People say talk to the patients but if I do that I get told I should be doing something more important!!

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  • Some people seem very ungrateful as why they are on the nursing course! As a HCA for 5 years before my training I felt it was beneficial to 'muck in' everywhere whenever needed. yes, now I'm there in a different context as a student nurse but patients need looking after no matter how qualified you are. Feeding, washing, bed making are the basics of your training. The best wards I have worked on is where everybody mucks in together and works as team. I have been on some wards where the nurses thought it was the HCA job to do all the dirty work and it's just not pleasant. Enjoy your training and make the most of it. You should be treating each placement as a potential job interview as this is where you could be working. If you think it's 'boring' washing patients and doing everyday tasks with them ... why train to be a nurse??

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