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theory to practical patient care

Transitioning from theory to practical patient care


Developing the skills and knowledge needed to pursue a career in nursing takes time and commitment. Anyone on this vocational pathway will also need certain vital personal attributes.

In addition, you must have the ability to apply the educational theories you have learned, quickly and confidently to real-life clinical situations involving patients.

To achieve a successful career in any healthcare role, hands-on experience will feature early in your learning. This is largely because even the most advanced technology is not a good enough substitute for genuine interaction with patients.

Your first clinical role as a nurse is unlikely to be your first taste of what life is like as a healthcare professional. However, the reality of nursing can still be vastly different from your experience while in training.

In many cases, there are no ‘do-overs’ when dealing with patients in hospitals, healthcare centers and other medical settings. Nursing students taking part in their first job placements will have to be ready to get things right the first time. They will also have to maintain a calm and measured manner, which helps keep their patients reassured throughout.

It is a big step that involves carrying many heavy responsibilities. Various studies have been done to explore “the transition difficulties that health care students experience when they move into paid professional practice”.

With all that in mind, here are some of the steps you can take to prepare, and be ready to transition from classroom learning to hands-on patient care in a clinical setting.

Having the right personality for nursing

Naturally, one of the things that will help you to handle ‘real’ nursing experience in a smooth and successful way is having the right personal attributes for this career in the first place.

This is not a job role for anyone prone to panic, self-doubt or hesitation.

There are various careers that come with a list of desirable attributes, and the nursing profession is certainly one of these job roles. After all, in the United States, nursing is consistently viewed as the most ethical and trusted professions according to the research organization Gallup.

Anyone starting out in both the theory and practice of nursing will need to be ready to demonstrate how they intend to support and enhance that public trust.

This involves being a fair, emotionally intelligent, responsive and empathetic person. You will need to be ready to deal with all your fellow human beings at their best and worst times. Being a genuine ‘people-person’ is essential.

Good organizational abilities will also count for a lot, especially at the start of your nursing career. This is because it is likely to be some time before daily nursing responses and tasks become ‘instinct’ as a healthcare professional. Having excellent time and task management will be a career long necessity too of course.

Among the other desirable attributes for nurses is the ability to stay calm under pressure. When you transition from the classroom to a clinical setting, you may need to “fake it until you make it”.

Early practical experiences working with patients directly are bound to make you apprehensive, if not downright scared. However, you should avoid communicating this to your patients, as you need to show a relaxed composure and warm, reassuring demeanor at all times.

This is also something that’s true of your entire nursing career. You will often be dealing with patients who are potentially distressed, in pain, worried or facing life-changing medical issues. How you handle yourself and manage their emotions is always going to influence how well you perform as a nursing professional.

All the above can be summed up by the need to be a resilient person who is able to cope with the pressures and demands of modern nursing. Some days and situations will be extremely tough and emotionally draining. This means having a true vocation and a strong desire to help people will help you get through to the times when this is the best career in existence.

Obtaining the best nursing education

In addition to having the right personality for nursing, the confidence to transition from learning to performing clinical care tasks will largely depend on your nursing education. This includes both the quality of the training you receive, and your commitment to optimizing your learning experience.

The best nursing courses enable you to gain the knowledge and skills needed for this role, but they also offer a great deal of personal and developmental support, which are properly integrated into the program.

This becomes even more vital as you start to specialize in nursing or acquire the qualifications needed for advanced positions such as a family nurse practitioner (FNP). Your focus can’t be wholly on theories and daily tasks if you want to be effective in your role from day one. You always need to be patient-focused and aware of your impact.

Reputable institutions such as the University of Indianapolis offer a variety of online nursing programs, including an online MSN – FNP program that allows nurses to obtain advanced skills in a part-time format that is ideal for working nurses. Topics covered in this program include advanced health assessment, diagnostics and procedures in primary care, advanced pathophysiology and advanced practice across the life span.

Thinking clearly 

The next thing you need to close the gap between your learning journey and a practical role in nursing is awareness that this gap exists!

No matter how well you did in your studies and how much practical experience it provided, and no matter how passionate you are about a career in nursing, the reality may be a shock. Being in a clinical setting is bound to provide new challenges and situations that thoroughly test you.

Mention has already been made of the fact that calmness is one of the most vital things to help you to achieve a smooth progression from education to practical nursing situations. For advanced nursing professionals dealing with major healthcare issues, that calmness cannot simply be surface-deep. It also needs to include the ability to take a moment to think clearly.

The most successful advanced nurses are problem solvers, using critical thinking to find the best solutions and outcomes for their patients. This is especially true in modern healthcare settings, as nurses are increasingly taking on leadership roles too.

This means that what the nurse practitioner decides impacts not just the patient, but also the actions and responses of the wider patient care team too, including the physicians.

Decisiveness and good problem-solving skills are often the outcome of an excellent educational experience in preparation for your nursing career. Nurses can draw on the knowledge they need instantly if it has been thoroughly explored and firmly implanted.

Professionals in this field will also use care and strong attention to detail, to gather all the other information they need from their patients and colleagues. From this basis, the nurse can then respond to the individual situation swiftly and effectively. This includes establishing priorities, while considering both the short-term and longer-term healthcare needs.

This sort of strategic thinking can be the difference between life and death in some nursing situations and will certainly help to keep patients safe and on track to successful diagnosis and treatment.

Communication and transitioning to clinical settings

This vital step in transitioning from the classroom to a clinical setting links with the above point. Much of your ability to handle practical healthcare tasks well comes down to whether you have the ability to listen constructively.

Listening to superiors and colleagues is clearly a key attribute of practical nursing experience, especially in the early days. A great deal of learning will take place on the job, and this is likely to continue throughout your entire career.

However, the most crucial way to practice constructive listening in a healthcare role involves building a vital relationship with your patients. This is not simply just hearing what the patient is actually saying. It also means you need to read any non-verbal cues and ask all the right questions to gain important insights.

This sort of listening goes in tandem with having excellent observational skills too.

For instance, one patient may say they are not in pain, but their posture or mood can suggest otherwise. Another patient could have a relatively minor injury but be highly sensitive and have a low pain threshold. They may need some extra reassurance and distraction, rather than high doses of pain medication.

Knowing when to seek assistance

The big day finally arrives, and you are out in a clinical setting, working directly with patients and meeting their individual needs. What if you are doing your first practical nursing tasks and you are struggling to read your patient, and to get the responses you need?

Alternatively, perhaps you simply don’t know what steps to take next despite your wealth of educational knowledge and you find yourself slightly overwhelmed by the task at hand.

The answer to any of these situations is that you need to be ready and willing to ask questions and seek assistance. It can be one of the most important parts of transitioning from classroom learning to practical nursing and involves having the honesty and humility to ask for help from colleagues or your manager when you need it.

Keep in mind that healthcare employers understand that they must help new nurses to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Most employ a highly collaborative approach to help ensure patient safety, while new recruits find their feet and learn their workplace practices and systems.

There is no shame in taking time to familiarize yourself with your workplace’s options for mentoring or generally supporting new clinical staff. You don’t have to be a trail blazing superstar from day one.

Most modern healthcare organizations have established clear mentoring and training pathways for their new recruits, and also provide well-orchestrated periods of induction. Your employer should give you a clear indication of who to go to if you have questions or concerns, as well as the daily support available in the early days of your career.

It can also help to smooth your transition to a clinical role if you form good bonds with your colleagues. Having someone to chat to in the breakroom, or a friendly face in your clinical area, can help to ensure that you never feel alone.

Self-care and kindness

Lastly, one of the most important things you can do to transition successfully from learning theory to putting it into practice probably happens outside of your working hours. This is because you need to be kind to yourself and focus on self-care.

Becoming a nurse in a busy, clinical setting, with your patients’ health and wellbeing in your hands, can be exciting and extremely fulfilling. However, stress will also factor into the equation, and you may make errors, especially during your first days on the job.

It is important to take time to reflect on any missteps or oversights, which your supervisor hopefully picked up on. They may help you to analyze these and find better responses, actions and outcomes for the future.

However, learn from these experiences and then quickly move on. It is very important that you don’t worry at home. You are not the first new healthcare professional to have a momentary lapse in judgment or confidence, and employers should be understanding and supportive.

The last thing your patients need is a nurse second-guessing themselves or deprived of sleep.

Make the effort to maintain a good work-home balance, so you can return to your daily life as a nurse feeling as refreshed and resilient as possible.

These are not just important things to support your transition from the classroom to a clinical role. They are also vital ways to cope with the challenges and changes that are a regular part of being an advanced healthcare professional.

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