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All student nurses studying at an approved education institute (AEI) will be able to replace some clinical practice hours with simulation activity, amid ongoing constraints caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Although some universities already offer simulation for its student nurses, the Nursing and Midwifery Council said that its latest education recovery standard would allow for further flexibility for all AEIs.
The pandemic has caused significant disruption to nursing programmes throughout the past year and has left many struggling to make up lost practice hours or find suitable placement opportunities.
In November, one nurse academic told Nursing Times how just days before several student nurses were scheduled to go on placement, they were left “begging and cold calling” private providers in a desperate plea to take students on.
During the pandemic, the NMC created a set of emergency education standards for student nurses that saw some opt-in to paid placements, while others were pulled from placements altogether.
Although these were replaced with recovery standards in September 2020, it was later decided in January 2021 that once again some final year students would be offered the chance to undertake paid placements again.
In its latest move, the nursing regulator has today announced a new recovery standard to tackle ongoing challenges around placement accessibility during the pandemic.
After engaging with partners across the UK this month, the NMC has said it will give AEIs the opportunity to allow students to practice and learn in simulation environments where conventional clinical practice is not possible.
The move will allow student nurses to undertake up to 300 hours of simulated learning across the length of their programme. Such activities include peer learning, working with manikins and online practice learning.
However, the NMC made clear that a student’s final placement before registration should be spent in a conventional setting.
In the summer last year, Nursing Times spoke to nurse academics at the University of Portsmouth who were already using simulation hours with their students during the pandemic.
They warned at the time that if other universities did not also use simulation suites “properly”, they may not get their desired number of students through on time.
In its announcement today, the NMC explained that AEIs can choose how best to apply the new recovery standard by considering their local circumstances, availability of placements and the individual needs of students.
It recognised that not every education provider would adopt the new measure in the same way.
The nursing regulator stressed that a key principle of all its emergency and recovery standards in the wake of Covid-19 was that education should continue as normal where possible.
Andrea Sutcliffe, NMC chief executive and registrar, said: “With thanks to the feedback from the four UK chief nursing officers and our other key partners, I’m glad we’re able to introduce this further important recovery measure.
“The ongoing challenges and workforce pressures of Covid-19 continue to impact students’ learning opportunities, and as our existing emergency and recovery education standards demonstrate, we’re committed to doing all we can to support them through these difficult times.”
She added: “In particular, for some nursing students, we know this is affecting their ability to go into or experience practice placement opportunities in the usual way.
“In these circumstances, we want to make sure further flexible solutions are available for educators so that high-quality learning outcomes and proficiencies can continue, and to support the journey from student to registered professional.”
All standards would be kept under “close review” and the NMC “look forward to hearing from our approved education institutions about how they use this flexibility so we can learn lessons for the future beyond the pandemic”, noted Ms Sutcliffe.
Commenting on the move, Mike Adams, Royal College of Nursing director for England, said: “This has been a really challenging time for students with much of their learning being disrupted and many at a real risk of having their graduation date delayed due to challenges around placement availability.
“We want to make sure further flexible solutions are available for educators so that high-quality learning outcomes and proficiencies can continue”
“We know that simulation can be an effective alternative way of learning and can be a more flexible practical learning tool to support students in progressing their studies,” he said.
However, he stressed it was “vital” that the “effectiveness of this change is closely monitored to ensure that students across the UK consistently continue to achieve the required standard of practice as they move towards registration”.
“Any learning from this development must be captured in order to inform any future professional debate on the future of graduate level nurse education,” he added.
Professor Mark Radford, chief nurse at Health Education England, said: “We heartily support this initiative to provide higher education institutions with more flexibility to ensure their students have the best possible learning opportunities, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.
“By making the most of available technology, and through a flexible, diverse and imaginative approach, our universities can ensure that students are fully supported and feel encouraged to pursue their training to the very best of their ability,” he said.
Chair of the Council of Deans of Health, Professor Brian Webster-Henderson, also welcomed the “increased regulatory flexibility and the use of simulation in practice hours”.
“This would enable the development of new placement opportunities, encourage innovative learning and ease placement capacity pressure to support growth in student numbers,” he said.
“We know that simulation can be an effective alternative way of learning and can be a more flexible practical learning tool”
“We know many of our members will welcome this flexibility and are ready to deliver high quality education using simulation.”
Meanwhile, Dr Katerina Kolyva, executive director of the council, said that to “take full advantage” of the new development, “universities will require investment in new simulated and virtual placement opportunities, technology, infrastructure, and the academic workforce”.
Following the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU), the NMC will no longer be required to include EU Directive requirements in its education standards.
The regulator is set to invite employers, students, registrants, and public groups to complete a survey about the current standards and how they can be updated following the removal of the EU directive.
Dr Kolyva noted that simulation was a “key issue in the current review of the EU Directive”.
“We will continue to work closely with our members, the NMC and other stakeholders on the future minimum education requirements for nursing and midwifery, including the role of simulated practice,” she added.
The latest move from the NMC comes on the same day new figures from the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS), revealed that applications to nursing courses in the UK had risen by almost a third this year, with more than 60,000 people expressing an interest in joining the workforce.