Soldiers without Ammunition: the Experience of Healthcare Students on Placement

Image Credit: Sinéad Mohan

Is the government doing enough to support healthcare students on placement? Adesewa Awobadejo reports on the experiences of these students.

On the 16th of January, the Department of Health issued a press release statement highlighting its decision to suspend nursing and midwifery student placements. This affected over 2,000 students across the nation, with the exception of fourth-year intern nurses. According to the press release this decision was undertaken in order to “facilitate redeployment of additional qualified nurses and midwives to support the COVID-19 response”. The statement also announced that nurses and midwives were to be released from the “supervision and educational support of student nurses and midwives to assist with the COVID-19 response”.

Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly TD, in a statement, thanked student nurses and midwives for their “commitment” and reassured them “that all options will be considered in re-starting these placements as soon as it is possible”. Following this, UCD student nurses and midwives were sent an email on the evening of the 16th. The email contained a letter attached addressed to students from The Chief Nursing Officer, Department of Health (DOH), Rachel Kenna. Students were assured in the email on behalf of the Dean of and Head of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Systems School, Professor Fealy, that they would be “kept informed in a timely manner of all developments that may affect them”. 

The decision to postpone placement came as a surprise to many, as it followed an announcement a week prior that 4,500 student nurses were to receive a new Pandemic Placement Grant worth €100 per week. Both Kenna and Donnelly TD acknowledged that the postponement of placements may be disappointing to some. Students who spoke with The University Observer shared their disappointment: “First-year nurses have been pulled from placement after one week. I know some students who got accommodation.” While the press release stated that placement was to be postponed for two weeks effective from the 18th of January, students seek for clarity as one states that their placements are “constantly [being] cancelled”. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) released a statement on the evening of the 16th of January also seeking clarity. 

The postponement of placement may be the best case for the students and the general public at the moment. However, many disagree as one student nurse likens it to their “whole degree is put on hold” as many are constantly worried about making up hours. In a statement by the INMO, it claims that ?“the affected students will not have to repay this placement time later in order to qualify?”. Student nurses and midwives must obtain a minimum of 2,300 clinical placement hours before they can qualify as nurses. This is set out by the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland (NMBI). The 2,300 hours is made up of 45 weeks’ supernumerary and 36 weeks’ internship during the 4 years. 

The question amidst this pandemic for a lot of student nurses is if this requirement would be maintained or if there is “more of a leeway” as third-year Children’s and General nurse Wura Oladimeji calls for the need of more lenient requirements. In conversation with The University Observer, Oladimeji says: “There are situations where people [student nurses] have caught Covid from hospitals yet still have to pay hours back... I know a mature student who has to repay 12 weeks of placement [but] we don’t even get 12 weeks of summer”. 

Final year Physiotherapy students are another group of Health Science students currently on placement. Prior to their placement, the final year Physiotherapy students were worried that hospitals would not take them on. They were initially informed that only a small percentage of the year were being offered placement spots, due to limited spaces. A letter on behalf of the final year BSc Physiotherapy students regarding the insufficient number of placement sites available to facilitate their class was sent to the Students’ Union. The letter, as well as further communication with the Physiotherapy school, increased the number of placement sites and spots available. 

Final year physiotherapy student, Medb O’Keane told The University Observer that they need “to gain approximately 300 more clinical hours to qualify as physiotherapists.”O’Keane shared that she has been learning a lot over the last few weeks: “It’s amazing how beneficial practical learning is, and finally putting the theory into practice. I think clinical placement is a necessity for healthcare students. I realise it is a pandemic, and hospitals are short-staffed, so I can appreciate that taking on students is perceived as a bit of a 'burden' at the moment. However, the problem is that students are missing pivotal learning moments.” Currently, second-year Physiotherapy students have not been on a single clinical placement yet due to limited learning spaces in hospitals. O'Keane, worried, says that “It’ll be a shock to their systems when they get half-way through their degree without seeing a single condition they have been learning about in textbooks.”

Oladimeji explains how in her opinion the quality of her learning experience has been compromised due to unworkable conditions caused by the pandemic. For her, it is hard to get the most out of the experience as Clinical Placement Co-ordinators, are “busy and do not have time”. “With nursing, you have to search for learning opportunities but it is hard to do that without pestering.” She adds. 

The experience of healthcare students differs. A final year radiography student, who wished to stay anonymous, says they personally have had a good experience with the clinical placements. While having been on placement in September, student X says “The pandemic has had an effect on the type of work we do but not our learning. I felt supported by the university but know the nurses are under more pressure than us.” 

When speaking to an Intern Nurse, student Y, they highlight the lack of psychological support for student nurses. “If you’re having a bad day you just have to get on with it… In a few years, we’re going to look back on the effect [the pandemic has] had on patient care and on the staff.” Student Y likens her placement experience to being in a “war with no ammunition… we have no proper protection.” They go on to say “it appears that we have the full support of the entire country, except the government”. Organisations such as INMO and the NMBI have been advocating for student nurses. The government's treatment of student and qualified nurses has been criticised for years. Student Y says they have gone from feeling “empowered” by the protest last year to being “exhausted from fighting”, and that the government's response is “offensive”. 

While each school is offering support as best as they can, these efforts seem futile without the support of the government. Most healthcare students, unified across the different disciplines, are collectively calling for accountability and answers from the government. Student X claims “the government is asking for a lot but giving nothing in return”.