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The next generation

Savvy providers have realised student nurses can fill today’s AIN shifts, but can also be a source of new blood for tomorrow’s workforce. Cathy Wever reports.

Despite the sometimes low prestige associated with working as assistants in nursing (AIN), which often features some of the less-glamorous care-related tasks, many student nurses opt for this work to supplement their income as their study. 

Savvy aged care providers are therefore looking to tap into this source of relief workers, but also to attract, develop and nurture student AINs in an effort to keep them in aged care after they graduate.

At Benetas, a Victorian provider with 12 sites across the state, executive manager residential services, Jane Boag, says the organisation sees nursing students working as AINs as a valuable resource.

“We look at them as an opportunity. Because they are studying, they are constantly in contact with new ideas and research, which they can share with their colleagues at work.”

Boag says that Benetas is currently devising ways in which they can further tap into the knowledge of student AINs. Meanwhile, the organisation has created several new positions, which aim to support and enrich the experience of AINs and other, non-tertiary qualified members of their workforce.

“Our recently appointed dementia support advisor works with all our staff so that our approach to dementia patients is consistent, and we see our student AINs benefitting from such learning and interaction.

“We also try to communicate to our AINs what a varied career they can expect from aged care nursing,” says Boag. “We know that for many graduating nurses, a career in aged care is at the bottom of their list, so we try to show AINs that the sector offers them the chance to use many of their clinical skills, such as pain management and neurology,” says Boag.

At Bupa Care Services, head of learning and development, Marg Ryan, says student AINs are supported to have a career path in aged care should they wish to progress and develop. The organisation has relationships with universities in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, which they use to attract graduates to their ‘new graduate nursing program’ and also to encourage students to apply for AIN roles within their facilities.

Emma Larkman, a graduate management intern at Bupa Care Services, started her career as a student AIN in the aged care setting and describes it as a positive experience.

“Working as an AIN in the aged care setting took my practice to the next level. I was able to autonomously operate within my scope of practice knowing that if I was unsure about the how or why of what I was doing in the facility or even in my undergraduate course, there were always RNs available who were ready and willing to help me.”

Bupa Care Services encourages continual education for its staff, including an online learning option introduced in 2010, and Ryan says this culture of professional learning helps to support and develop the skills of its AINs.

“Currently seven of our AINs from different facilities around Australia are now recruited in our new graduate purse program in 2011. Reflecting the organisation’s success in training and retaining AINs up to RN level, Ryan says Bupa Care Services “had an 80 per cent retention of RNs from this program in 2010.”

Yet, according to UTS Professor of Nursing and Health Services Management, Christine Duffield, the positive experience for nursing student AINs may be the exception rather than the rule.
“As the aged care industry has moved to having fewer registered nurses and more unskilled workers, students who go into facilities as AINs often have little or no supervision and are left to their own devices.”

She says that while she supports the idea of providing AINs with a positive experience, the reality is this is not always the case.

“If AINs have access to a good mentor, the experience can be fantastic and there is a real opportunity to promote aged care. It’s a sector where you can see that you’ve made a difference and you enjoy more patient continuity than in a hospital setting.”

Duffield says some aged care facilities operate with a single registered nurse overseeing up to 100 beds, leaving no time for them to effectively supervise student AINs. She says an argument she often hears that “elderly people aren’t sick so they don’t need a registered nurse” is ridiculous and the health needs of older patients are very complex.

“One of the options for aged care facilities might be to employ nurse practitioners, who would be good role models for student AINs, showing them what they can aspire to and giving them a highly skilled practitioner to see in action, while providing an extra level of care to the facility and its residents.”

Elsewhere, at South Australia’s Helping Hand Aged Care, director of research and development Megan Corlis says the organisation actively values the AIN position and its role as a stepping-stone towards a career in aged care nursing.

“Our strategy is to actively support our existing AINs to go on to complete their nursing qualification. We provide a financial contribution to their studies and we ask that they remain with Helping Hand for a set period after they qualify.”

In addition, Helping Hand has a mentor program to help AINs make the transition to the RN role within their existing workplace, which focuses on personal leadership skills and managing others’ perceptions of your role within the organisation.

Corlis says the Helping Hand approach has many benefits, including the retention a known staff member.

“You might advertise for an RN and get maybe one application, whereas if you can support the further education of an existing AIN, then you know their strengths and talents, and you know that they fit in with your organisational culture.”

Helping Hand has strong links with the University of South Australia, and Corlis says as part of this relationship, a number of student nurses came through their facilities at the end of 2010.

“We were surprised how few of them could envisage following a career in aged care nursing. Also, we saw they had little understanding of how they could apply their nursing expertise in an aged care environment. When such students are working as AINs there is a real opportunity to show them how nursing skills are applied in aged care and how varied and rewarding the role is.”

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