How to make the most of your clinical placement
Clinical placements are a part of any healthcare-related degree course, whether you’re training to be a doctor, a nurse, or a specialist such as a social worker or psychiatrist. Healthcare is a patient-focused sector, which means that besides the necessary academic knowledge and theory you learn through your studies, it’s vital that you have hands-on experience working with real people who have real health problems.
No two patients are the same, so although your training will help you to identify common symptoms and make a diagnosis, there will always be individual variables. During placement, you’ll get the opportunity to see how different patients present the same conditions in different ways, and you’ll be able to put your learning to use in the real world.
What you get out of your placement will be directly proportional to what you put into it. The more proactive, self-motivated and fully engaged you are, the more you will learn and grow throughout and after your placement period. Clinical placements give you the opportunity of a dynamic learning process: this is where you find out what the job that you’re trained for is really like.
Types of placements
Clinical placements can happen at different junctures in your learning journey, depending on the type and length of your course, and the institution in question. Some institutions schedule their placements early on in a course to get the participants used to working with patients as soon as possible, while others leave them until after the halfway mark, when the students are more knowledgeable. Sometimes, students may be given the chance to interact with patients on campus before beginning their official placement.
The length of your placement can also vary for reasons similar to those mentioned above. A placement block may last for a few days or a few weeks. Some colleges may run year-long placements but only for one or two days per week. A typical placement will last for a month or maybe two and will involve several different specialties in rotation as well as more general practice.
Your first task will most likely involve shadowing a medical team on their ward rounds, where you’ll visit all of the patients under the care of a particular consultant. After this, you will be expected to help with more specialized tasks or join a clinic. Remember not to break patient confidentiality or to do anything that might jeopardize a patient’s safety. If you’re not sure exactly what you’re meant to be doing, then ask. It’s better to risk feeling slightly foolish than to harm someone’s health due to trying to bluff your way through.
Why clinical placements are necessary
Clinical placement gives you hands-on experience of actual patient care in a real-world setting and is an essential part of your healthcare training and studies. It can be compared to an internship or an apprenticeship in other trades, as you will be working at the job that you’re being prepared for, but under professional supervision and guidance.
A clinical placement is included even if you take an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) course online. Elmhurst University offers an ABSN online degree course that can be taken in just 16 months, studying full-time. Applicants need to have an existing bachelor’s degree in any subject. The degree prepares you to take your National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) and then start work as a qualified registered nurse (RN).
Starting your placement
When you start your placement, make sure that you know where you’re going and how long it will take you to get there. This might sound obvious, but getting the basics right will not only ensure that you make a good first impression, but will also make you more confident and happier about your placement experience.
If you’re using public transport, check the timetables. Even if you’re driving or walking, consider making a dry-run journey to where you’re meant to be on the day before your placement is due to start. Know who you’re meant to be meeting and where exactly you need to be. Check that you have all the cellphone numbers that you might need, and that the appropriate people have your number.
Dress smartly and appropriately. Give yourself more time to get there than you think you’ll need so that you’re prepared in case of delay and won’t arrive feeling rushed and flustered. It’s a good idea to get there at least 15 minutes early on your first day anyway so that you have time to introduce yourself. You should always arrive promptly and stay for the full duration of your placement shift, even if it seems like there isn’t much for you to do.
Try not to feel intimidated by your supervisors or your surroundings. Remember, everyone is happy to help you, and you’re not the first placement student they have had to accommodate. Be aware, however, that they do have their regular work to do, so they might not be able to give you as much time as you or they might like.
Top tips for a successful placement experience
At the end of each day, reflect on your experiences. What did you learn? What did you achieve? Where could you have done better? It’s helpful to keep a diary or journal of your placement, including your changing feelings.
Coping with nerves
Going onto a working ward for the first time can certainly be daunting, and nerves are to be expected. Indeed, if you’re not approaching the experience of your placement with a degree of trepidation, then you’re either extremely capable already or you’ve just been avoiding thinking about it!
As with many such experiences, the best attitude is to admit to yourself that you’re nervous, but don’t let your worries overwhelm you. Feel confident in the skills and understanding you’ve gained from your studies and look forward to the opportunity to apply them in the real world.
In order to get the most out of your clinical placement, you need to be prepared. Do some research. If your placement is in a specialist unit, make sure that you have some up-to-date knowledge of that specialty and what is likely to be expected of you. Discuss your aims and objectives with your supervisor at the start of your placement. Wherever you are posted, it’s essential that you’re always properly presented and ready to work hard and learn.
Schedule your time effectively. Know exactly when and where your placements are and block them out in your diary. Keep some time aside to review what you learn in each session and to prepare for your next shift. Always give yourself enough downtime, however, as coming on shift alert, refreshed and in a receptive mood is vital. Get plenty of sleep, eat well and do what you enjoy when you can.
Always have a pen with you. In fact, always have two pens in case one is borrowed and not returned or runs out of ink. Stay hydrated and well-fed. Make sure that you eat something high in slow energy-release carbohydrates before you start your shift so that energy will be released slowly throughout the day. Porridge is a good example. Fresh fruit or a healthy cereal bar will do the trick if you’re running late. Hospitals can be over-warm, and you’ll see things that may make you feel queasy. Skipping breakfast isn’t a life hack – it’s a mistake that will reduce your effectiveness on the ward.
Observe and inquire
Aim to learn something new every day. Take every opportunity to ask questions of your supervisors and colleagues. Don’t be a pest or get in their way when they’re busy, but do ask informed, appropriate questions that will broaden your knowledge and help you to become a better nurse or doctor. Most people you meet will be happy to help someone who is demonstrably enthusiastic and keen to learn. Talk to patients to get an idea of their expectations and experiences. Ask if you can attend staff meetings as an observer.
Placements are where you really get to see what healthcare is all about and you should take full advantage of this. Be observant and take note of everything you see. If you get the chance to enter into unique or unexpected situations, then do so. Carry a notebook so that you can jot down important information as you go. Writing down your observations immediately after you come off shift is a great way to consolidate and retain information.
Healthcare is to a large degree about communication, both between colleagues and patients. In this respect, no amount of academic education can fully prepare you for working life in a busy modern hospital. Information needs to be passed on quickly and effectively, often in high-pressure situations.
Patients don’t always understand the terminology you might use and may have difficulty making themselves understood. These are all lessons that you only learn through experience. Methods of communication arise naturally from specific environments, so to master these methods, you need to be immersed in that environment beforehand.
The fact that real people will be putting their health and often their life in your hands is humbling, and you should accept the gravity of this. However, at the same time, you know what to do, and you’ll be working with a team of experienced professionals ready to step in to help if necessary. With this in mind, don’t be afraid to put yourself forward when your supervisor asks for volunteers to perform a simple operation or make a diagnosis. The more you step up, the more you’ll learn, and the more your self-confidence will increase.
As with any new work or study environment, it’s good to get noticed on your placement as soon as possible. Introduce yourself to everyone you’ll be working alongside regardless of their perceived status. Be enthusiastic and show interest. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or voice an informed opinion. Use your initiative and look for ways to be helpful.
Be prepared to accept critical feedback in the spirit in which it’s intended. This is to help you become a better doctor or nurse. You might finish a shift feeling as though you know nothing and will never become a healthcare professional, but that isn’t true. If you’ve got this far, then you have what it takes. However, you’re still learning, which means that you make mistakes – and if you don’t make mistakes and get called out on them, then you’ll never learn how to do better.
Your supervisors don’t point out your errors because they enjoy it or because they don’t like you. They want to help you to learn and improve. That’s why they give honest feedback that might sometimes sound harsh. It’s intended to encourage robust self-assessment. Your clinical placement will continually take you out of your comfort zone, but that’s where you’ll learn and grow most effectively.
Your placement period is a great time to start building professional relationships and make new friends. The staff you’ll be working with will be able to offer you useful advice and share knowledge. You may even find someone who is prepared to serve as a mentor for you. Others may become informal role models, sometimes without even knowing it.
Start building your professional network during your clinical placement. You may meet the people you’re working with later in your career. Others may prove invaluable contacts when you’re looking for new opportunities. It’s never too soon to start getting to know your colleagues, and the benefits may be apparent immediately or useful for your future career development.
Make the most of quieter shifts
Not every day on your placement will feel stimulating and action-packed. Nevertheless, there will still be plenty for you to learn and do even on less productive shifts. Observing how your colleagues communicate or undertake routine tasks can teach you a lot about how a hospital is run.
If your shift is really quiet, this could be a good time to have more in-depth conversations with your colleagues or to follow up on complex questions you’ve been meaning to ask. Be prepared for these low-key times by familiarizing yourself with different wards and getting to know the people in charge there. If nothing is happening in the part of the hospital where you normally work, then you might be able to make yourself useful elsewhere.
Volunteering to go ‘on call’ can be an excellent way to get to know your colleagues as there will be fewer people working and you’ll get to see a different side of the hospital environment. Get comfortable with working on your own initiative. You’ll rarely find that you’re completely alone and there will always be someone around to back you up. However, getting used to not always having a partner or direct supervisor all the time will stand you in good stead for your future working life.
Work through your logbook
Keep track of the tasks in your logbook or portfolio that you need to tick off by the end of your placement. However, while you should always be mindful that these tasks need to be completed, also be aware that your logbook is not the be-all and end-all of your placement experience. Some of your most valuable lessons may come from shadowing a nurse or involving yourself in a procedure that is unrelated to your logbook tasks. Also, remember not to focus on completing your logbook at the expense of patient care – always put people first.
Your clinical placement is there to let you complete a series of supervised tasks in a real-world setting. These are all necessary in order for you to complete your course. However, achieving all of your assigned goals isn’t the only purpose of clinical placement. In many ways, the unexpected and unplanned elements of a placement are often the most valuable. They can teach you lessons that you won’t learn in any other context and will prepare you for what life as a working medical professional is really like.
Making the most of your clinical placement really does depend on you. Not every placement will be as exciting and stimulating as you might hope, and you may not click with all of the staff you’ll be working alongside. However, you may also find yourself in a work placement that you’ll remember for the rest of your career, and that you’ll later draw on when passing on advice to the next generation of students, many years later.
The key to success in both cases is your own attitude to your placement. Just remember to work hard, pay attention and enjoy yourself. Keep as much of a record of your thoughts, feelings and experiences as you can, both for your immediate benefit and to look back on with hindsight. These notes will remind you of an experience that will stay with you for a lifetime.