By Gregory Kennedy
Practicums are a long-standing tradition within Alberta Health Services (AHS) that benefit students, staff and patients alike, but crafting these vital educational and work experiences during a pandemic called for leaders across disciplines to put their thinking caps into overdrive.
“When the world was turned on its ear back in March, many schools stopped placements and pulled their students away. Typically, March and April are the months for their final placement, and they graduate after that,” says Jacqueline Albers, manager, Provincial Student Placements with Health Professions Strategy & Practice (HPSP).
“There was a lot of push around that time to see what else we could do to make sure the students would finish their placements and be able to graduate. Between their schools, the regulatory bodies and AHS, we made it work. AHS really pulled together. It was amazing how many people took students, considering the pandemic. Despite the uncertainty, we held firm and created opportunities for students.”
Speech-language pathology (SLP), occupational therapy (OT) and nursing were among the first to reach out — looking for ways for students to do placements without having to be in front of a patient.
Creative ideas also originated from the office of Julie Evans, practice director, Provincial Speech-Language Pathology, who says her team worked with AHS Student Placement and the University of Alberta (U of A) to create placements that would serve both patients and academia, with students allowed to work remotely and virtually.
“People with communication needs — who have speech or hearing difficulty — are particularly impacted by the pandemic,” says Evans. “For example, people who are on are on a respirator need support to communicate. So our students helped us to create tools, such as a picture communication board, that pharmacists can use with these patients.
“We prioritized eight really practical, needs-based initiatives for students to develop — and synthesize learning resources for staff to create tools they could use with our patients. In all, 21 SLP students were paired with supervisors.”
One of them was Spenser Day, a freshly minted SLP, who’s just completed her Masters of Science in Communication Sciences and Disorders at the U of A.
“It was so comforting that AHS could accommodate students like myself so quickly,” Day says. “Without a practicum, we faced a lot of uncertainty about our graduation and our careers. It was a huge relief for us. I felt I was being taken care of by my chosen field — and that AHS was willing to help.”
Evans adds: “Spenser worked with a group of students on developing a directory of learning resources for staff — putting valuable resources, guidance and information at their fingertips on key topics. This was especially important for those SLPs who were redeployed during the pandemic or addressing changing patient needs.”
SLPs play a vital role in the fight against COVID-19, helping people to communicate about their care and to swallow safely again if they have been on a ventilator.
“Some SLPs have taken on a diverse range of considerations unique to the circumstances of COVID,” says Day. “For example, caring for patients on mechanical ventilation requires specialized attention to voice care and the upper airway, as well potential impacts to swallowing.”
“One of the big things I learned is to appreciate how much work goes into creating these resources and the amount of work it takes not only to keep up with evidence, but how to integrate it into clinical work,” adds Day, who hopes to work with AHS. “We’re all super-appreciative of the hands-on practise and the experience that we got during this project. It was a huge privilege and honour.”
Occupational therapists also opened their doors and hearts to welcome student placements, says Carmen Lazorek, practice director, Provincial Occupational Therapy, HPSP.
“One of the things we’ve done provincially is offer leadership student-placement opportunities — where the work is very virtual anyways — so it was an easy transition. We allowed students came to learn about healthcare leadership and occupational therapy leadership through virtual networking and participating in working groups and projects, which is generally done over Skype.
“It’s a great opportunity for students to come and learn what we do provincially to support OT practice. We take students on a journey to explore, as well, their own leadership qualities and their leadership styles. This shows them how their practice knowledge and how their own individual approach to occupational therapy will translate into how they can evolve to become leaders in the organization.”
Lazorek is pleased that some acute-care facilities have been able to think outside the box and take students despite COVID-19, with appropriate safeguards in place.
”The students were able to jump right in and feel that urgency and that need for them to be there to really support the healthcare system — for both bedside and clinical care,” Lazorek says. “Many made sure our patients were feeling OK by helping them to connect virtually with their family and loved ones during times when family members weren’t able to visit.
“Faced with how quickly things had to change as we adapted to pandemic care, our students developed their ability to adapt, to be resilient, to problem-solve in the moment. Students are great at that — supporting us and thinking outside the box and being innovative.”
The quality and impact of the student work proved phenomenal, especially at a time when supervisors were under a lot of pressure due to COVID-19, says Evans. “Their spirits were really boosted by the energy, enthusiasm and excellence of the students. They found it a joy to work with these students.”
“We’re dedicated to training the next generation,” adds Albers. “We appreciate and see the value of students.
“Now we’re encouraging managers and units to take more students to work directly with patients. There’s no better way to learn. When it comes time to hire them in a month or two, they will be ready. They will be so well-trained, they will understand what to do — and how to care for patients in a pandemic.”
Gregory Kennedy works in communications at Alberta Health Services.
Practicums by the numbers
Students have contributed a great deal to Alberta Health Services during their unpaid practicums.
- For the 12-month period ending March 2019, AHS accommodated 19,240 students who worked 3.2 million hours. For the same period ending March of this year, 22,768 students put in 3.8 million hours, a year-to-year increase of 18 per cent.
- While the pandemic has driven practicum numbers down, they remain substantial. For example, from April to July of this year — the spring/summer semester — 2,479 students were still able to work 506,000 hours on their practicums.
- Nursing students typically account for the lion’s share — almost three-quarters of students — who gain experience and knowledge through their time with AHS