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What happens when placements aren't possible? Practice learning during lockdown

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, while some students could continue their practice placements as NHS employees, first-year undergraduate nursing students were paused nationwide. Some second and final year students were also unable to attend their placements where ordinarily they would normally gain invaluable skills and insights into the day-to-day experience of nursing.

Institutions across the UK were faced with a difficult question: how can student nurses gain practical, clinical, skills in the unprecedented circumstances of national lockdown?

The Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery & Palliative Care innovated to meet the needs of its students. King’s students who were already in a voluntary role were able to take a pathway that let them convert their hours volunteering into practice learning. To gain credit they needed to have their hours validated by the organisation where they volunteered as well as completing a reflective essay and activity log. But what about students who weren’t already volunteering and didn’t have any kind of placement available to them? They needed to earn their practice hours at a distance.

The e-learning pathway of the Practicum was developed to give students the tools and hours they needed to progress in their studies, even without physically being on placement. Through the pathway, King’s students explore and develop the values and professional attributes required of future nurses. Rather than teaching theory and preparing students for academic assessment, the Practicum focuses on the experience of nursing and fosters a holistic understanding of delivering clinical care.

Six specialist areas of clinical care are included in the pathway: substance misuse; homeless health; safeguarding & domestic violence; COVID-19; vaccination; and smoking cessation. Students approach each area as if they are on placement; making connections between their in-class learning, keeping an activity log, and writing a reflective piece on what they have discovered about the subject and how it will influence their nursing.

I know that in practice I am going to be able to better explain and inform my patients if they have questions or concerns...the practicum has developed my understanding of how to meaningfully communicate with and inform my patients.– Nursing BSc student following the COVID-19 specialism

Each of the online tasks that the student completes is linked to professional values and proficiencies that are set out in the Pan London Practice Assessment Document (PLPAD). The PLPAD has been devised by practice partners, mentors, academics, students and patients to give students the professional tools to deliver person-centred safe, effective and compassionate care from the point of registration as a nurse.

Students on the e-learning practicum are encountering topics and situations that they may not ordinarily come across on physical placement and are gaining a wider perspective of the issues they will face during their careers. The COVID-19 specialism offers the latest insight into breakthroughs in the treatment and care of patients, as well as leading students to consider how they can communicate compassionately and effectively while wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

The practicum has been a new concept for both students and staff. Despite the reasons for its development - to replace traditional practice learning during a global pandemic - it has offered us all an opportunity to explore fresh perspectives on the professional values and proficiencies students develop as part of their course. Our students have enjoyed the experience and of course it has meant they have been able to complete practice hours required for their course which they would have been able to otherwise. – Rebecca Elliott, Teaching Fellow and Practicum Lead

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