Expand and diversify placement capacity

11 January 2024

In conjunction with our 2024 General Election Manifesto, the Council is releasing a series of blogs which explore the underlying principles and four asks in more depth.

The final blog in the series is by Stella McKernan, Policy Officer, and Ed Hughes, CEO, Council of Deans of Health.

In a rapidly evolving landscape, education providers are pursuing new and innovative approaches to keep pace with technological advancements, overcome placement capacity challenges, and meet the growing workforce demands.  Healthcare students spend a significant portion of their time on practice placements that are essential for completing their studies and subsequently becoming registered practitioners. Yet, education providers continually  grapple with challenges in providing quality placements for existing student cohorts. Without a clear strategy for both a major expansion and diversification of placements, education providers will find themselves ill-equipped to accommodate the increasing number of students needed to provide the NHS with a robust domestic workforce. Furthermore in light of the NHS’s digital evolution, students need practice learning opportunities that will enable them to become the workforce that is needed in the future.

Better join-up between health and education sectors

It is time for improved join up between the health and education sectors with more active partnerships in providing placements. The current placement landscape is the result of organic growth over many years. As provision has changed, for example with universities starting new healthcare courses or reshaping their provision, placement capacity has been found to support this. However, this is not always achieved in a way which meets the needs of students – either geographically or in terms of the quality of the student experience. At a local and regional level, placement arrangements need to be revisited through the lens of delivering an excellent experience for students – this will require new relationships between universities and placement partners, and much greater shared accountability for the delivery of high-quality student outcomes. Collaboration is key in achieving and ensuring success in this. The government, with its convening power, should facilitate more effective partnerships between the NHS and universities, ensuring the provision of the in-person placements necessary to meet workforce needs.

Diversifying placement provision

Alongside delivering the number of placements needed for healthcare students, it is equally critical to diversify placement provision across a range of different healthcare settings. We must explore a broader spectrum of placements by not just expanding capacity in community and social care settings, but also providing placements in other areas crucial to a flourishing healthcare system such as leadership, policy, research and education. Many of our future nurses, midwives and AHPs will be working as registered professionals in these areas, and their experiences on placement should reflect this. This diversification not only enriches the learning experience but also aligns with the evolving healthcare landscape and what is needed from the future healthcare workforce.

Simulated practice learning

The Long Term Workforce Plan in England calls for digital and technological innovations to be capitalised upon, and that ‘the widespread safe, effective and ethical adoption of these innovations will be one of the most important ways of delivering the stretching productivity ambitions in this Plan.’ The rapid adoption of simulated practice learning as a response to the restrictions of the pandemic demonstrated the adaptability of the sector, as education providers quickly embraced opportunities to innovate. It is vital that we keep up this momentum, take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by changed regulatory requirements and build on the lessons learnt from the pandemic to drive further advancement across the sector.

Simulated practice learning can play a transformative role in revolutionising healthcare education through diversifying and strengthening learning experiences, expanding placement opportunities beyond the traditional clinical setting and fostering a new generation of skills. Complementing real-life practice, simulated learning provides a safer environment and a wider array of clinical scenarios, better preparing students for the workforce. The controlled environment simulation provides allows for students to not only become competent practitioners but confident practitioners which are essential to patient safety. Preserving the progress made during the pandemic is crucial, and valuable lessons should be gleaned from innovative placements established during Covid-19, as highlighted in the Council’s Pandemic Powered Improvements report.

However, this approach demands significant financial and regulatory support to scale up effectively. Essential to the delivery of simulated practice learning are resources such as equipment, technology, and proficiently trained staff. Therefore, we urge the government to keep the momentum from the pandemic going by sustaining funding streams and adapting regulatory frameworks to promote simulated learning and the integration of cutting-edge technology in healthcare education. This proactive approach will empower universities across all the four nations to embrace innovative learning methods, simulated practice learning, and more diverse placement opportunities.

Council policy priorities

Ahead of the upcoming General Election, the Council is putting forward key policy priorities with the major political parties, and is calling for:

  • Government to use its convening power to ensure the NHS and partners work better with universities to offer the high-quality in-person placements needed by students
  • Sustained capital investment and a more adaptive regulatory framework to further embrace simulated practice learning and technologies in promoting patient care

The future of healthcare education in the UK hinges on our ability to adapt and innovate. By expanding placement opportunities, fostering collaboration between universities and the NHS, and embracing simulation-based learning, we can collectively shape a healthcare workforce that not only meets the demands of the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan but also ensures the highest standard of care for our communities. By investing in these areas, we can better equip our aspiring healthcare professionals to navigate the diverse and challenging healthcare settings they will encounter throughout their careers. It will ensure that we foster a modern, skilled, and compassionate workforce dedicated to a lifetime of public service.

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