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A critical interest inquality care

Nurses can pursue a medical specialism by enrolling on a flexible postgraduate course, writes Russ Thorne

A nursing qualification doesn’t begin and end with a diploma. There are a range of post-registration academic options available to nurses at every stage of their careers, often with flexible timetables to accommodate their working hours.

“The majority of qualified nurses will need to undertake post-registration courses at either degree or Masters level,” says Anne McLeod, senior lecturer in critical care at London’s City University. “This may be to enable them to progress their careers within a speciality.” For example, nurses working in intensive care are required to undertake a specialist qualification before they can move to a more senior position, she explains.

Postgraduate courses in nursing follow the same pattern as standard Masters qualifications, with a split between taught and research courses. It helps the healthcare sector to have nurses following a research path, says Dr Nick Alcock, director of postgraduate studies in the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Physiotherapy at Nottingham University, which offers Masters in research methods. “There’s a big move in nursing and other healthcare disciplines to improve practitioners’ skills so they can engage in research as well as clinical practice.”

To help develop those skills, universities also provide taught courses, such as Masters qualifications in advanced nursing practice or health policy. Doctoral paths are also available, says Alcock. These courses contain more taught elements than a standard PhD and are “designed for people who need doctoral-level critical thinking skills but who will remain in practice, rather than focusing solely on research”.

Because courses are designed to meet the requirements of individual healthcare trusts, they carry a degree of flexibility. This allows students to create a learning pathway consistent with their needs and those of their employer, says Gary Albutt, deputy dean of the University of Sheffield’s School of Nursing and Midwifery. “Qualifications are firmly grounded in what the new skills will do for the practice of a trust or an individual.”

There’s no obligation to carry a course through to a full Masters. It’s possible to opt out of a programme at either certificate or diploma level after attaining the award for a particular role. This flexibility carries through to the course schedules and teaching and assessment styles. Generally, students can expect to spend one day a week in the classroom. Online learning options are also rising. “They’re becoming much more valued,” says Albutt. “Students log on and work through material as it suits them.”

With courses examining a range of areas such as clinical leadership, risk management and service evaluation, it’s unsurprising that teaching and assessment methods vary. McLeod explains that students may encounter simulators when learning assessment skills or work on case studies, as well as learning through lectures and seminars.

Likewise, assessment might be in the form of exams, essays or more practical work supervised by experienced nursing practitioners. The objective of many postgraduate nursing qualifications may well be career advancement, but there’s also a distinct emphasis on developing skills to expand capability at your current level. “This kind of education increases the competence, confidence and skill of practitioners,” says Albutt. “There’s an immediate benefit of being more knowledgeable, and being able to apply that knowledge.”

“As healthcare continues to develop and evolve, there is a need for practitioners to be able to carefully consider and evaluate new evidence and research so that practice can be influenced,” adds McLeod. She notes that leadership qualifications will enable nurses to take charge of the way care is provided, while more technical (and academic) qualifications such as non-medical prescribing will allow them to safely prescribe medications, with a knock-on improvement in patient care and satisfaction.

Nursing and its allied professions are changing. As a result, new and innovative healthcare services are required, according to Alcock. “Masters programmes are designed to do that, they’re about improving and developing problem solving skills,” he concludes. “Healthcare is becoming increasingly complex and we need practitioners who can provide the services patients are going to need.”