What is a preceptor?

Transitioning from education into the workplace can leave many new graduate nurses feeling overwhelmed, unsupported and full of doubt.

One strategy to help counter the culture shock and retain graduate nurses in the workforce is preceptorship.

A nurse preceptor is an experienced and competent nurse formally assigned to guide the professional journey of a student, graduate nurse or new staff member joining a workplace.

Preceptors aim to ensure novice nurses become confident and competent enough to deliver quality care.

Responsibilities of a preceptor include providing resources and support during the transition period, facilitating growth from nursing education into the clinical environment, and creating a safe and positive workplace.

A good preceptor can help early career nurses develop their professional identity, practice safely and professionally and become valued team members.

Preceptorship programs vary depending on the workplace but typically involve preceptors being partnered up with an early career nurse in a formal relationship for a defined period of time.

Preceptors and preceptees meet regularly throughout the journey to evaluate progress, such as the development of nursing competencies, learning objectives and level of confidence and knowledge gained within the working environment.

Registered nurse Jennifer Hally works in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney and decided to become a preceptor to give back to the profession after reflecting on her own introduction and the valuable support she received from more experienced nurses.

As a role model, she attempts to create an environment where early career nurses and new staff members feel empowered to ask for help so that patients receive safe and holistic nursing care.

“As a preceptor it’s my responsibility to help guide, direct and assess nursing students and new staff members with their clinical practice,” she explains.

“I help them set realistic goals using the SMART acronym. It is so important to ensure the preceptee’s goals are achievable and realistic. I remember when I qualified I wanted to run before I could walk and nursing is most definitely not a career you can do that in.

“There is so much to learn and it takes time to find your feet and build sound clinical judgment. I often get the preceptee to jot down some goals for the week and try to best facilitate them achieving those goals.”

Jennifer says hospital management and educators determine which preceptor is best suited to supporting nursing students and staff members and the preceptorship period varies depending on the needs of the individual.

Reflecting after each shift is one of the ways she gauges her own effectiveness.

“Do I feel I met their learning needs that shift? Were the goals I helped set realistic and attainable? Of course, how the preceptee is [feeling] will also give you an idea of your role as a preceptor. Their body language; are they withdrawn or intimidated or were they involved, forthcoming and comfortable with you.”

Jennifer likes to keep in touch with nurses once the preceptorship concludes.

“I like to touch base with the staff member to make sure they haven’t gotten lost or overwhelmed now that they are flying solo, so to speak.”

Jennifer says seeing preceptees advance and become competent clinicians is rewarding.

She believes nursing preceptorship is crucial to ensuring the profession continues to thrive and that programs should be more widely implemented across the health system.

“Without a preceptor’s experience, knowledge and commitment, clinical education may not exist. Having preceptors enables students and new staff to be exposed to effective clinical experience, which in turn directly enhances their development of confidence and competence.”

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