Late on Saturday night, it was reported that the HSE had contacted the Department of Health in order to suspend clinical placement of student nurses and midwives. The suspension has been called in order to free up qualified staff who otherwise would have supervised 2000 student nurses, who have been working on the frontline for over 10 months.

The move appears to stem from concern over professional staffing numbers. The Department of Health further stated that “there will be no educational and support infrastructure for them while in the clinical learning environment.”

Students were told this just two days before semester two was due to begin, and the suspension is to last until February first at the earliest. The Department of Health has described this as “an evolving situation” that is “under constant review in the context of the current Covid-19 trajectory.” However, questions surrounding what the clinical placement will be replaced with, and how fourth-year students will operate as HCA’s, and if the move will ultimately help hospitals needs to be answered.

Theory Replacing Practice.

First-Third year students will have their placement halted for two weeks at minimum, but what have colleges planned at such short notice? In an email from Chief Nursing Officer Rachel Kenna, obtained by The College Tribune, sent to University College Dublin nursing students, stated they will work together with the HSE and different schools to “provide educational opportunities during these two weeks in order to minimize the impact on learning.”

A meeting with the National Clinical Placement Oversight Group is set to take place on January 21st where “further information will be provided”. The Group holds student representation, so it is expected to include information on education for the forthcoming weeks. 

Despite these promises of education opportunities, a second-year nursing student spoke to The College Tribune, describing the mood of students, the predicaments they find themselves in, and how they just want to continue working on the frontline. 

“The message had not been passed onto a lot of wards, so some students weren’t sure to if they were to show up to placement on Monday or not.” As for education while placement has been suspended, “there is nothing in place at the moment, nor has anything been communicated” in that respect.

“Its awful timing for girls who are up in Dublin from the country and paying rent in Dublin specifically to go on placement. So many of the girls had to give up their jobs, only to find out days before placement was cancelled.”

“A lot of the girls would have rather stayed on placement and help out. Hospitals definitely need it, and students are appreciated and valued by other ward staff. We can do things that are within the scope of our practice, and the fully qualified staff can look after more serious situations.” 

“What has really stressed nursing students out, is having to carry out [the] placement at another time. We hope it can be waved.”

Final year Fiasco.

Final year students are being told their internships will continue throughout the coming weeks as normal. The Department of Health informed the public that final year nurses undertaking a 36- week internship “are counted for rostering purposes as 0.5 of a fulltime equivalent nurse/midwife.”

Despite this, final year nurses are currently not paid at the rate of fully qualified nurses. Final year interns will remain on the €100 per week payment, and those who qualify for pandemic unemployment payment will still receive it. However, it is worth noting that final year students were paid to the same rate as HCA’s during the initial stages of the pandemic.

The INMO has called on the government to reinstate this pay, stating “Those [fourth-year] interns who are being asked to continue working need to be valued properly. Earlier in the pandemic, their pay was increased to take account of the risks and workload they faced. The Minister should do the right thing and reinstate that policy.”

Quality Over Quantity?

The Department of Health have pulled 2,000 student nurses and midwives from hospital placement, but how many supervisors exactly will that free up? 

The College Tribune spoke to a third-year nursing student from Trinity College Dublin who explained the inner workings of hospital wards to the paper.

“Each student is assigned one staff nurse who will be their preceptor for the day. However, due to staff shortages, nurses struggle to cope with the workload posed by the staff to patient ratio. Most of the time we end up helping out and doing jobs for many other nurses on a ward.”

“There would typically be 3 student nurses on a ward and a further 1-2 intern nurses (final year nurses).”

Practical learning with student nurses is a one -on -one experience, but with the staff shortages mentioned, it appears that student nurses are not only valuable to aiding the cause, but the will is there to help in any way they can, regardless of the educational value attached to the placement.

The situations that hospitals have been left in is complicated. On the one hand staff shortages has led to student nurses and midwives playing a pivotal role in ensuring hospitals are not totally overwhelmed. Student nurses and midwives appear to want to continue helping out. However, the department of health believes that the lack of educational value and freeing up of supervisors will improve situations in these hospitals.

Luke Murphy – Co-Editor