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How to survive clinical placements: Tips from a student nurse

The nursing clinical placement is an essential part of the nursing degree and is an opportunity to solidify clinical knowledge and get real life exposure to clinical settings.

For almost all students, the transition from university-based learning to the real clinical setting is both fascinating and challenging. For many, it will be their first exposure to highly vulnerable patients and the complex multidisciplinary ecosystem of a hospital setting.

It takes some time to understand the relationships between the various members of the multidisciplinary team, the doctors, the allied health professionals and the array of staff in a hospital setting.

Indeed, there is quite a gap between theory and practice, and it is essential that students traverse this gap and develop a nuanced understanding of how clinical knowledge is applied to real people in clinical settings.

The following are some suggestions and recommendations for students beginning their first nursing placement.

Have realistic expectations: Learning the complex psychosocial clinical skills of being a confident nurse takes time and involves being exposed to challenging and stressful clinical situations. So, it’s important to have realistic expectations when embarking on your first clinical placement and not to expect it to be easy. Remember, you are not expected to be a fully qualified nurse as a student; you are always encouraged to ask questions.

Be prepared: Read up about the clinical field into which you are being placed, and speak to other students or nurses that have worked in that clinical setting before. Make sure you have the right equipment with you: comfortable closed shoes, a stethoscope, a watch and perhaps a drug directory so you are prepared.

Be professional: One of the biggest changes moving from a university-based setting to a clinical one is the importance of the professional persona, keeping in mind that patients often hear and see the behaviour of the professional staff and students. This includes maintaining a respectful and formal clinical style and ensuring you are punctual and considerate throughout your clinical placement.

Be safe: Take seriously the scope of practice and be aware of the legal requirements of a student. In other words, know what you can and can’t do in your student role. Never do something you feel unsure or uncomfortable about – always speak up. Be meticulous with PPE (personal protective equipment), using appropriate attire such as gowns, gloves, goggles and shoe coverings when necessary. Also always remember the Five Moments of Hand Hygiene:

  1. Before touching a patient
  2. Before clean/aseptic procedures
  3. After bodily fluid risk/exposure
  4. After touching a patient
  5. After touching a patient’s surroundings.

Safe practice not only protects the patient, it also protects you.

Self-care: When embarking on a career as a nurse, it is important to get into good habits of self-care that will help you to maintain your overall wellbeing throughout your career. These include getting enough sleep, eating a well-balanced diet, exercise, debriefing with a trusted person if you are exposed to something confronting or upsetting (always being mindful of patient confidentiality), and getting into the habit of unwinding properly after being in your professional nurse role.

As a student, be aware that you can always contact your supervisor if dealing with more serious problems or stresses that you feel you need assistance with.

The student placement is an essential part of the nursing curriculum, and having realistic expectations, being prepared and professional, and being safe and looking after yourself, is a great way to begin a fulfilling nursing career.

Ayelet Dahan is a final-year student nurse at the Australian Catholic University.

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