Continuing to learn

Further
education can provide many benefits for occupational health professionals, by Dr
Dorothy Ferguson

Lifelong
learning is widely recognised as being beneficial, not only to individual
practitioners and the profession, but also to the client groups served by those
professionals. 1,2,3,4

In
occupational health (OH) nursing, therefore, lifelong learning will be of
benefit to the nurses within the specialty, to the service provided and to the
employees on whom the OH provision is focused.

This
is important for at least two distinct groups in OH – those who are already
qualified as OH nurses (OHNs) and those who are seeking to obtain the relevant
qualification.

For
those who are already qualified as OHNs, the emphasis on lifelong learning
combines with the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s (NMC) requirement to
undertake continuous professional development (CPD), which acts as a reminder
that no-one ever knows everything and there is always more to learn.2

As
OH nursing is such a complex speciality and is practised in such a variety of
contexts, the potential for further study may seem limitless. Some may wish to
further develop their counselling skills, while others want to enhance their
knowledge of health and safety.

For
some practitioners, extended nurse prescribing may be relevant, while for
others, a deeper understanding of the rehabilitation process may enhance
practice. What is important is that the practitioner identifies the topic that
will enhance their practice and further their understanding.

OHN
education has made some progress in recent years. Where there was once a
certificate awarded by the RCN,5 there is now a qualification recorded at the
NMC.6 This community specialist practitioner qualification (SPQ) must be taught
at the academic level of a first degree, with some universities now offering it
at postgraduate level.

The
OHN qualification now shares the same academic and professional status as all
other community SPQs, meeting standards set by the NMC.

For
those entering OH settings, there now exists the opportunity to undertake
specialist qualifications at degree or postgraduate level, equipping them not
only to function as an OHN, but also with the skills required of all those
holding an SPQ.6 They will gain, for example, knowledge about research
methodology, and are able to critically appraise evidence.

Leadership
will be explored in the course of their studies, as it is expected that those
holding the SPQ will become leaders in their practice context. The impact of
policy on service provision will be familiar to them so they can contribute to
the effective planning of services.

The
features of care that are specific to OH will also have been studied and, as 50
per cent of the programme will have been practical, they will have gained experience
in OH settings. The increasing number of OH practitioners now holding the SPQ
should facilitate the development of OH practice and increase the evidence base
for practice.

Such
programmes of study are very challenging. All are mature learners, many
entering higher education for the first time. As well as coping with the
demands of study, they also have home and work commitments,7 so it is essential
they are supported and encouraged by their colleagues, managers and employers.

Within
the practice placement, they will have a mentor/supervisor/practice educator
(the term can vary), who will facilitate their learning in the workplace.
Experienced practitioners have an important opportunity to contribute to the
students’ experience, as employer, sponsor, mentor or colleague. The importance
of such support cannot be over emphasised.

Returning
to study can be both challenging and rewarding, whether the student is
undertaking a new qualification or extending their knowledge base for practice.
Previous experience will impact on expectations and associations.8

The
teaching and learning methods encountered may be very different from those met
in previous, more traditional, nurse education.9 Students will be encouraged to
become active learners,10,11 adopting a deep approach to their learning.12
These skills, combined with the knowledge gained during the programme, will
enable practitioners to become lifelong learners, equipped to advance OH and to
develop practice.

OHN
has come a long way in recent years.5 The continuous development of
practitioners should ensure it will continue to develop practice in a way that
will ensure the health of the workforce.

Dr
Dorothy Ferguson is head of division of community health, School of Nursing,
Midwifery and Community Health

References

1.
Lifelong learning in nursing: perceptions and realities, Gopee N, Nurse
Education Today, 2001, 21 (8): 607-615

2.
Maintaining your registration, UKCC, 1995, PREP& You, London

3.
The New NHS – Modern and Dependable, NHS Executive, London, 1997

4.
A First-Class Service – Quality in the New NHS, DoH, London, 1998

5.
Nursing at Work, Slaney B, 2000, London

6.
The Future of Professional Practice: The Council’s Standards for Education and
Practice Following Registration, UKCC, 1994, London

7.
Motivational forces affecting participation in post-registration degree courses
and effects of home and work life: a quantitative study, Dowswell T, Hewison J,
Hinds M, 1998, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 28(6): 1326-1333

8.
Key Concepts in Adult Education and Training, Tight M, 1996, Routledge, London

9.
The Principles and Practice of Nurse Education (3rd ed), Quinn F, 1995, Stanley
Thornes, London

10.
What is active learning? Denicolo P, Entwhistle N, Hounsell D, 1992, CVCP
University Staff Development and Training Unit, Sheffield

11.
Improving your students’ learning, Morgan A, 1993, Kogan Page, London

12.
Assessing student learning in higher education, Brown G, Bull J, Pendlebury M,
1997, Routledge, London

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