Jan 13, 2020
By Tracy Stoneson

Could mentorship be the solution to retaining critical care nurses?

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Take away messages

  • Individualized mentorship programs for novice critical care nurses provide the foundational knowledge required for longevity in the profession.
  • Undergraduate nurses should be supported to complete preceptorships in advanced practice settings.
  • Investing the time, energy and resources into mentorship programs will ultimately decrease the shortage of nurses in critical care areas.

Successful and individualized mentorship programs of novice critical care nurses lead to success and longevity in the profession. I can personally testify to the truth of this statement.

Years ago, I was an eager nursing student who couldn’t wait to graduate. I had big aspirations to become a critical care nurse, and I had been accepted to complete my final preceptorship in a large tertiary intensive care unit (ICU).

For the next three months I worked beside a nurse who taught me many tools that I still rely on today. I solidified my assessment and critical thinking skills and fuelled my passion for critical care.

Just prior to my graduation, I was approached by the leadership team and offered a permanent full-time position with sponsorship to complete the critical care nursing program. Additionally, they wanted me to be their first pilot project as a new graduate working in the ICU.

I spent the next four months receiving one-on-one mentoring with an expert nurse who taught me everything I know today. I learned how to complete comprehensive assessments and how to identify deteriorating patients. I learned competence in advanced skills, effective communication with patients and families, and the importance of the interdisciplinary team.

This experience was the most valuable I have had in my nursing practice. The extent of financial and psychological resources that were dedicated to ensuring my success was huge, but priceless.

Soon, a few other nurses were mentored in the same fashion as I was. Their experiences mirrored my own, and all of us have remained in critical care to this day, largely because of the support that we received.

Risks versus benefits?

Fast-forward 13 years: I am now the patient care coordinator in a community ICU. I have spent my entire nursing career thus far in critical care.

Over the years I have watched many of my colleagues develop symptoms of burnout and leave the critical care environment or even the nursing profession. Turnover and staffing shortages among critical care nurses are well documented in the literature. It is almost impossible to hire critical care nurses as fast as these nurses are leaving the profession.

I can’t help but wonder whether the unique training and mentorship that I received were the reason I succeeded as a critical care nurse. Many nursing schools do not allow students to complete their last practicum in critical care, and the reasoning behind this dictum is unclear. Are the schools nervous about the risk of pairing a novice nurse with a critically ill patient? Do they want students to become more confident and competent simply by managing a heavy non-critical patient load?

The shortage of critical care nurses is not a problem that will go away anytime soon. If we want to recruit and retain our critical care nurses, we need to invest the time, energy, and resources to help them succeed. We need to empower and support our new nurses and provide them with as much experience and mentorship as possible.

Beginning your career in a critical care setting is tough. But with an individually designed orientation and tailored mentorship program, it can be both a challenging and a rewarding experience.

Additional Resources

Brooking, L., Theron, M., & Crowe, S. (2018). Transforming critical care orientation for novice nurses within the contemporary nursing workforce. Canadian Journal of Critical Care Nursing, 29(2), 21.

Innes, T., & Calleja, P. (2018). Transition support for new graduate and novice nurses in critical care settings: An integrative review of the literature. Nurse Education in Practice, 30, 62–72.

Pottinger, L. (2016). Critical Care Transition Program for Newly Graduated Nurses. Canadian Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, 26(3), 5.

Vanderspank-Wright, B., Lalonde, M., Smith, A., Wong, S., & Bentz, J. A. (2018). Exploring new graduate nurse transition into the intensive care unit (ICU). Canadian Journal of Critical Care Nursing, 29(2), 35.

Tracy Stoneson, RN, BScN, is Patient Care Coordinator in the Intensive Care Unit in the Fraser Health Authority, BC.

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