It’s certainly true that nurses and other healthcare specialists never really stop learning, and thankfully, there are educators on hand who can help guide graduates through the exciting cases that await them. However, it’s a slight misconception that nurse educators are purely teaching staff. Educators can also help to shape hospital policy, inspire research, and support nurses in live clinic settings should they need additional support. In many cases, nurse educators create teaching moments on the ward and in the classroom. They’re in great positions to help solve complex clinical problems in times of varying crises, too.
Let’s look at the role of the nurse educator in practice and how they help break down various problems that might arise in hospitals and clinics.
What is a nurse educator?
Put simply, a nurse educator helps to train and develop graduate nurses as they progress through their healthcare careers. All nurse educators start as registered nurses, or RNs, and take on roles as mentors and influencers within specific hospitals and healthcare settings. Nurse educators are highly experienced and have advanced degrees. They understand the principles of treatment, patient outcomes, care planning, and emerging and long-established strategies.
People become nurse educators because they care deeply about the standards of care patients receive from nurses. They likely have some experience treating patients themselves, meaning they can provide expertise gained through physical work as well as years of study.
Many nurses choose to enter this career path through online nurse educator programs, such as those offered by Cleveland State University. CSU provides insight into evidence-based practice as a primary module; a school of thought that many nurse educators recommend, for helping solve complex problems of all shapes and sizes. Students also get to learn about how to lead people effectively and how to design curricula and coursework for nurses in their charge.
What do nurse educators do?
Nurse educators largely support nursing graduates through their studies and in their transition into the workforce. They help registered nurses and practitioners through the implementation of various on-the-job curricula, often having designed learning programs themselves. Nurse educators also provide support regarding conducting research and deciding which topics are relevant for students to cover before heading to a hospital for the first time. Educators teach the basics of patient care and can also help to instruct patients and broader communities about self-care and general wellness.
Ultimately, nurse educators do more than simply train future nurses. They work hard to create new ways to test student competencies and to ensure care units continue to provide the best possible care for all patients who attend.
How do nurse educators support clinical problem-solving?
Although nurse educators primarily act as mentors and guides for nurses who treat patients directly, they still have important impacts on how problems are identified and solved in practice. Nurse educators help to solve clinical problems and support patient outcomes by providing nursing staff with extensive internal skills to handle a variety of situations. While they might not be on hand to support problem-solving directly, they can support nurses from the sidelines and continue coaching them so their skill sets develop over time.
Let’s consider how nurse educators help care teams identify clinical problems and patient concerns and understand the best ways to treat them.
They instill a culture of evidence-based research
Evidence-based research, or EBR, is a cornerstone of nurse educator training. Western medicine is largely rooted in the idea that patient problems are resolvable through critical reasoning, clinical research, and careful decision-making.
Nurse educators encourage their students, who will at some point work in hospitals and clinics themselves, to think carefully about each case they encounter. While nurses may frequently resolve problems by dressing wounds and/or providing pain medication, complex cases demand more attention, which is where professionals need to consult published research.
For example, if a nurse takes on a patient who has extreme breathing difficulties but is in a demographic where invasive surgery might be considered a risk to their life, said nurse needs to look at the broader picture to find an ethical resolution to bring their charge back to full health again.
Nurse educators encourage students to treat each case they work on as completely unique. They’re encouraged to not only communicate with patients, but also to check medical histories and current medication prescribed, and then consult associated research.
The nurse attending the example case above might find counter research to suggest that their demographic isn’t as at-risk as first assumed. The nurse could also find resources that confirm, through extensive clinical trials, that a particular drug helps to alleviate symptoms and/or risk.
While it’s the nurse who ultimately makes the critical decisions, the nurse educator takes the time to establish this process of practical judgment and research-based treatment.
They create positive working environments
Morale positively affects productivity and problem-solving, and by helping build a positive and proactive atmosphere, nurse educators can encourage students and graduates to think more critically and continue pursuing problem resolutions within healthy limits. For example, a nurse working in a negative environment is unlikely to feel inspired to do their best. They might practice the bare minimum required in the role, but they might not feel motivated to go above and beyond for patients.
It’s hopeful nurses never feel this way, but when work gets challenging, staff need nurse educators on-side to help them look at the bigger picture. For instance, if a nurse continues to treat a complex case where a patient isn’t responding to changes in medication, an educator could step in to help them refocus on the end goal. Instead of getting distracted by a lack of progress, this nurse could feel inspired to look at more diverse research.
By the same measure, nurse educators can inspire a collaborative work environment. That means nurses don’t feel they are on their own solving problems and handling complex cases. Collaborating with other nurses and healthcare specialists, such as consultants and pharmacists, ensures there is a variety of opinions and expertise working toward the same goal.
Nurse educators help to inspire collaborative work early on in students’ modules, meaning they enter the workforce ready and willing to work in teams where necessary.
They inspire critical thinking
Critical thinking is one of the most important skills nurses will develop in education and while working in hospitals and clinics. Critical thinking is the ability to look at a problem objectively, considering the facts and removing emotion and bias. It’s a skill that takes time to develop, and while nurses should focus on building teamwork skills, it’s vital for all healthcare staff to think on their feet and on their own in the event of a crisis.
Nurse educators can provide the training healthcare personnel need to handle challenging situations independently and remove their bias from cases. Once again, much of this practice revolves around evidence-based research. Nurse educators will advise their students that to solve problems, they need to apply logic. This isn’t the type of job or series of situations where it is safe to fall back on gut instinct. Nurses must back up their decision-making with intensive research and by looking carefully at case precedents.
As mentioned, nurse educators work beyond the classroom and often support nurses once they enter hospitals and clinics for real. That means they can support students and graduates with intensive cases where taking oneself out of the situation might be difficult. For example, in a case where a nurse has to help a child who might be seriously ill, they might find it challenging to remove themselves from the emotions involved in the matter. A nurse educator can support this nurse by inspiring them to examine the facts.
Nurse educators can help graduates to lay out care plans and to focus purely on the facts. In the above case, a nurse educator might encourage the nurse to ask themselves questions such as: “What is this particular child’s medical history?”, “What does research suggest about the success rate concerning surgery, if required?”, and, “Are there any precedents regarding medication or other types of treatment?”
It can be difficult to “take your head out of a case” depending on what’s at stake. Nurse educators therefore help staff to refocus and take a more objective standpoint. While educators might not always be available for nurses to fall back on, their support during formative years of work is invaluable for building up critical thinking skills.
They provide advocacy
While nurse educators might not always be able to inspire and support individual cases, they can wield significant influence over hospital policy and care standards. Nurse educators are highly educated, and professionals consider them extremely influential from a policy standpoint. Hospital administrators and local healthcare bosses will take their opinions and research into serious consideration.
Therefore, if nurses need access to more equipment or protective clothing, or hospitals simply need more staff to keep running effectively, educators can present evidence to local boards and hospital admins to ensure they consider and implement changes. This strategy helps with clinical cases where nurses might not be able to provide the best diagnoses due to a lack of tools, or where there simply might not be enough bed space for incoming patients.
Nurse educators listen carefully to the needs of their students and graduate nurses working in hospital settings. They build case files together and will present them to hospital boards if it’s clear clinical decisions suffer due to a lack of support.
Educators’ focus on objective critical thinking and evidence-based practice is immensely supportive. Instead of simply assuming the worst, they will look closely at what doesn’t physically work in practice and present details to administrators in a clinical manner. Ultimately, those who can make changes will only do so if there is significant physical evidence—they need the facts, not opinion and subjectivity. That means nurse educators are in a great position to advocate for patients, too. Educators can spot clear patterns in care standards and outcomes, and, again, will present data to administrators that clearly shows issues caused by a lack of funding, support, or equipment. For example, a nurse educator might advocate on behalf of an oncology unit where it’s clear care efficiency is dropping. In this scenario, they might present data that shows average wait times for people needing cancer treatment and care outcomes over time.
This hard data might be enough to encourage those with power to make necessary changes. Nurse educators wield considerable power on their own and can therefore positively influence all clinical decisions in a specific setting if needed.
They inspire reflective practice
Practice makes perfect, and in nursing, learning from experience is vital for building up core skills and competencies, no matter where a nurse specializes. Nurses who apply the same reasoning and take the same routes toward patient outcomes will quickly realize they need to make some adjustments over time. One of the most supportive things a nurse educator can do for their students and graduates is instill reflective practice.
Nurse educators encourage students to reflect on the outcome of each case they work on. If the patient outcome in one scenario wasn’t as expected, nurses are encouraged to consider how the situation could have been handled differently. What could they have done to have made their patient(s) more comfortable, or to have ensured that their treatment was more effective?
Reflective thinking allows nurses to look back on cases and to critically assess each step they take in their processes. This type of thinking also applies to care provision in general. Are there areas within a hospital setting where reflective practice could help to make processes more efficient?
Nurse educators, as mentioned, have a lot of influence and oversight when it comes to how certain wards, units, and hospitals in general are run. That means they can work directly with nurses who develop care plans and timetables and encourage them to reflect on what’s already successful and what might need improvement.
This culture of constant improvement ensures that care standards remain up to code and in line with any changes that patients might expect from their nurses. For example, evolving technology might demand that nurses provide telehealth services alongside in-person care. A nurse educator will help teams look at how this service can support existing processes with a reflective eye.
Reflective practice is all about continuous self-improvement. By instilling this behavior in students and graduates before they start working in hospitals full-time, educators can ensure they have the internal tools needed to bounce back from challenges with refreshed attitudes and positivity.
They provide placement feedback
Nurse educators can also provide ongoing feedback in placement scenarios to support student nurses and their clinics. It’s likely that, even while on placement, student nurses will encounter challenging scenarios with which they might need support. While educators will often remain hands-off to allow nurses to gain experience, they can intervene and provide feedback to allow for reflection.
Nurses won’t have access to their educators forever, but during placements, they remain on-side to offer feedback on how they handle cases. This is hugely important for their ongoing development and for building confidence in a new (albeit temporary) environment. Nurse educators can also feedback to facilities during placements if they feel nurses could benefit from specific support. This could be in the shape of certain types of equipment, staff availability, or even funding.
Educators working with the same placement hospitals over time can therefore help to shape the way they support students and process them throughout their experiences. Doing so can help to support any future students who join said facility, and even help clinics to improve their overall care standards and patient outcomes.
US healthcare needs nurse educators
We’ve made it clear that nurse educators are vital in and out of the classroom—they not only help to prepare nurses for healthcare practice but also hold plenty of influence over the way clinics and hospitals operate. Becoming a nurse educator is just one of several career options for advanced nurses—and for many, it’s one of the most rewarding. Being an educator means you get to inspire tomorrow’s healthcare heroes and advocate on behalf of people and systems in need of funding and support.
Nurse educators might not apply direct knowledge to patient care from day to day, but they work tirelessly behind the scenes to keep curricula updated, their students well-informed, and to help ensure workplaces are supportive of their staff. Educating nurses to think critically and efficiently in challenging scenarios is vital in the ever-changing world of healthcare. Educators are some of the most valued experts working in the healthcare system, and while they might not be able to support all the nurses they teach once they’ve graduated, the skills they teach prove crucial for years of care practice to come.