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Making the most of your placement

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Clinical placements are your chance to take your skills from the classroom and apply them on the ward. Gail Adams offers advice on how to make the most of this valuable opportunity

Gail Adams is the head of nursing at UNISON, the largest healthcare trade union in the UK, with more than half a million members in a wide range of healthcare settings. With a clinical background in theatres, recovery and intensive care, she has been a student, mentor and a manager.

She says, “I have seen it from all angles, and there is no excuse or reason that I haven’t used or heard.” Most importantly, she enthuses, she loved her clinical placements and loved having students in her unit and managing them.

Gail’s top tips

  • Once you know where your clinical placement is, work out how to get there and how much travel time you need. Contact the ward or department in advance through the switchboard and ask if you can just pop in to say hello and find out where it is. I liked to see students before the placement started - it always showed they had a keen interest.
  • Make sure you turn up on time and in the correct uniform. Image is important - you are training to be a professional. That doesn’t mean everyone has to look the same, but you should be neat and tidy.
  • Try not to start the placement with a list of which shifts you can and cannot do. Sometimes getting an inconvenient shift is unavoidable, especially if you also have to co-ordinate care arrangements. If you have a particular commitment, let the ward know, but be aware that you won’t be able to write your own shifts. Be selective and sensible in what you ask for - that way you are more likely to have your request granted.
  • On your first day, make sure that a member of staff gives you a tour of the ward, unit or placement. Take notice or ask about the fire exits and emergency call system, including the cardiac arrest trolley. Ask about the types of procedures they undertake and who the patients are. Get to know your speciality.
  • Be interested and ask staff to show you different procedures or advise you when something is happening that you would find it useful to observe. For example, what is the most common procedure or issue on that unit? Can they show it to you? The more placements you do, the more confident you’ll be in carrying out different procedures. Make sure you identify any gaps and ask to see those procedures performed so that you can build up experience and do them yourself.
  • Don’t be afraid to get stuck into a task that may seem very menial on the face of it, such as bed making or tidying. These can be an ideal opportunity to talk to patients or staff and add to your learning and knowledge.
  • It’s OK to say you can’t do something so don’t be afraid to say it. If you are asked to do a procedure that you haven’t seen or done before, you could say: “I am unable to do that as I haven’t seen it performed, perhaps I can observe you so that next time I will know how to do it,” or, “I haven’t seen that done, would you mind observing me as this is my first time?” There may be occasions when you are asked to do something that isn’t appropriate, such as when a doctor asks you to accept a new patient onto the ward as a new admission. This needs to be done by the person in charge as they will have a clear idea of the staffing and capacity at that time. In such cases, don’t be afraid of saying no, but explain why you can’t complete the task.
  • Be open minded in your placements. You will like some more than others; try not to judge them too much - they are all different.
  • Make a point of getting to know your colleagues and introducing yourself to everyone irrespective of who they are. You will be surprised about just how much you will learn from different people - the receptionist will be able to tell you a lot about systems and domestic staff often pick up information about patients and from other staff in the team who, together, play a vital role in delivering care.
  • Enjoy, question, learn and thank them at the end of the placement - even if it wasn’t your favourite. You will learn and gain experience in all placements.
  • Sometimes problems emerge during placements; this can include relationships with mentors. It’s important to flag up any problems early on - don’t leave things, as this may undermine your learning and sign off. When problems emerge make a note of what’s worrying you most and speak to your mentor about it. If you feel your concerns are being ignored, you can raise them with the sister or with your tutor. You can also speak to a UNISON representative.
  • Your placements should provide a good learning environment, where you are supported and encouraged to learn and develop. You should also use your placement to undertake pieces of reflection for your portfolio - pick something that has happened and do a piece of reflective practice.
  • Start to think about your CV: what did you learn most from the placement, what particular skills and knowledge did you develop? Make a brief note and record it at home. When you finish your course, this information comes in very handy. When applying for jobs and putting together a comprehensive and interesting CV, people often underestimate what they know and what they have done so this kind of record can be very useful. Sometimes you will change placements frequently on your course but don’t forget these simple tools to survive. As a manager, I loved teaching students. When you enjoy your placement, it’s just as rewarding for teachers and managers as it is for you. Good luck in your studies.
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Readers' comments (2)

  • Adam Roxby

    It is clear that proactive students get the most out of the precious time they spend in practice but it is important that students know what their limits are at the same time.

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  • I've recently qualified and I remember only too well what it is like to be in the student position and I love students shadowing me. There are occassions though when I do have to say no as I'm not experienced enough in the task and I'm still learning too. But I always explain my reasons to a student. As a staff nurse I hope I never get the negative attitude towards students I have sometimes witnessed over the last few years.

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