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01st Dec 2021

Student nurses say education impacted during pandemic and staffing shortages

Tara Trevaskis Hoskin

“I’ve been on placements where the nurses are almost asking you – why did you pick this? They’re having such a hard time, they don’t want other people coming in and having the same experience.”

A new report released this week found that Irish nurses have faced over 33,000 assaults in the last 7 years during work. Amidst the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, they suffered 7,737 attacks from patients they were caring for. 

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) has called for an urgent review of hospital security following these findings, but unfortunately these abuses are just one of many issues that nurses face in Ireland – especially student nurses.

A lack of resources can lead to a high pressured work environment where nurses are overworked, underpaid and put at risk. With ICU’s already filling up before the winter peak, nurses on the frontline are facing immense difficulties.

Nina and Jessica are in their third year of general nursing in Dublin. They say that there are difficulties not only working in these environments, but also trying to learn in them.

“It would kind of put you off,” says Nina. “Like you have good days and you have some days where they’re amazing, and then others when you’re like – wow, the stress of this, I don’t know if I’m able for it.”

As part of their course, Nina and Jessica must complete 16 weeks of unpaid placement each term. Both students must also work part-time to support themselves as well as try to stay on top of their studies, which can be drastically impacted by financial burdens. 

“I would work one or two shifts a week plus placement, so that’s 36 hours. One shift is 13 hours so then that could be 49 hours, and I could do another 13 on top of that,” says Jessica. 

“You’re going to placement next week and you’ve just worked five days before. Do you think your concentration levels are going to be the same as if you just worked three days?” 

During the pandemic, the government opted to pay student nurses a weekly €100 allowance following recommendations from a report commissioned by the Department of Health. However after its introduction, the INMO criticised the payment and instead advocated for student nurses to be paid the same wage as healthcare assistants. 

The payment has since been extended till March, but there is no guarantee that student nurses will receive any type of payment after this.

“They give us a €100 a week grant, but it’s only €2-something an hour when you work it out. That wouldn’t even begin to cover living costs so everyone has to work on the side,” Nina says. 

On top of living costs, college fees, and renting, placement in itself has fees that are not covered.

Jessica points to the cost of getting to your placement with an inadequate travel allowance, saying: “Regardless of where you are, it’s €16.50. Most places you go, it wouldn’t cover it. Maybe it would cover half of your travel for the week. You’d still have to pay for travel.”

Like many other student nurses, Nina and Jessica both also work as healthcare assistants which means that they mix with more patients. The recent confirmed arrival of the Omicron variant also brings new challenges.

“You’re constantly moving around as a student, so you have to be careful you don’t bring it into another ward,” says Jessica. 

And again, she finds her education is impacted on top of this.”I was meant to be on a normal cardiac ward but when I went to the placement that morning and it was a Covid ward,” she says. 

“My learning outcomes for that placement had nothing to do with what I was supposed to learn, it was just Covid so I lost out on three weeks of learning.”

“You have a nurse supervisor for the day, but if they’re really busy they don’t have time to teach you,” adds Nina. “So then you’re used as a healthcare assistant for the day sometimes, or you’re left there waiting for someone to teach.”

Jessica and Nina both advocate for student nurses to receive financial support, as well as more support and communication throughout their placements. 

“Student nurses need financial support. That’s the biggest thing that affects me, is having to work on top of placement, to achieve everything that I should be achieving on placement.”