3 Critical Components of Nursing Professional Development Across the Care Continuum

The nursing workforce constitutes the largest group in healthcare today. Healthcare organizations understand the importance of retaining competent and confident nurses, who can adapt and meet the increasing demands of providing safe and effective care for complex patient populations.

The nursing workforce is experiencing record turnover for a variety of reasons, leading to a loss in valuable expertise and staff shortages. In 2021, the national average RN turnover rate was 27.1%, with the hospital staff turnover rate at 22.5%. In 2017 and 2018, mean RN turnover in nursing homes was reported at 140%.

The importance of professional development for nurses

The importance of professional development for nurses is that high-performing organizations recognize the significance of professional development plans for new and incumbent nurses. The National Academy of Medicine Report, The Future of Nursing 2020-2030, highlights the importance of lifelong learning and the need for a stronger, diverse nursing workforce that is well prepared to provide evidence-based care, promote the health and well-being of themselves and those they care for, and address systemic inequities.

More and more, organizations across the continuum of care are recognizing the impact of nurse competency and satisfaction on patient care and outcomes, as well as the bottom line. Furthermore, nurses should increasingly anticipate ongoing professional development throughout their careers and consider lifelong learning to be a part of a healthy work environment.

In especially trying times, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare leaders can lose sight of the important role professional development can play in terms of a support system for nurses. It becomes imperative in times of crisis for organizations to ensure their staff have the much-needed support to provide safe and effective care, especially when faced with a pandemic and managing a crisis.

Professional development can play a key role in providing opportunities to learn about managing new disease processes and complex patient populations.  In addition, organizations can further promote learning opportunities regarding self-care and avoiding burnout, especially during a crisis.

Therefore, it is important for organizations to prioritize professional development across each nurse’s different career stages, from new graduates to seasoned veterans. Long-standing hiring and onboarding programs remain crucial, as well as innovative ways to adapt lifelong education to individual needs, which changes behavior and promotes continuous professional development.

Critical components of professional development for nurses

How does your organization stand up to these three critical components of professional development for nurses?

While consulting a sample professional development plan for nurses might be a helpful starting point, most organizations will benefit from formalizing a professional development program and accurately tracking its results to adjust as necessary. Organizations should focus on three critical components of professional development for nurses including:

  • Having dedicated resources in place
  • A customized professional development plan for nurses encompassing the career continuum
  • An effective measurement system process in place to identify areas of improvement for nurses

1) Dedicated professional development resources for nurses

Having an organized, ongoing professional development program as a nurse is critical to centralizing, operationalizing, and organizing quality standards. As such, it is important to allocate appropriate resources for lifelong learning. This includes:

  • Dedicated personnel responsible for assessing and meeting the professional development needs of nursing staff
  • Resources to support their initiatives and goals (including mental health support, especially during high-stress times, such as the COVID-19 pandemic)

Healthcare organizations across the care continuum vary in size and ability to allocate resources toward professional development.  In today’s healthcare landscape, professional development is not an option but an imperative.

An individual serving as a Professional Development Practitioner can impact an organization’s strategic goals when it comes to ensuring staff are providing safe and effective care, and they are well-adjusted to the needs of the organization.

The role of professional development leaders and senior leadership

Leading a successful professional development initiative is possible with an engaged Senior Leadership team.  The role of the professional development practitioner is critical to this process.  In addition to aligning with the organization’s strategic priorities and goals, they must be able to demonstrate a business case that yields value and ROI for the allocated time and resources to further gain buy-in and support.  Professional development leaders can engage nursing leaders and front-line staff across the organizations in the journey to embrace evidence-based practice and impact clinical outcomes.

2) Customized professional development for nurses throughout the career lifespan

Nursing professional goals vary across the career lifespan. A one-size-fits-all approach limits an organization’s workforce capabilities, especially when it comes to identifying areas of improvement for nurses.

Nursing professional development leaders have a challenging task to meet the basic needs of the organization by preparing new nurses to be ready for safe, independent practice, while simultaneously ensuring competency of all staff nurses.  Providing meaningful opportunities for continuing education, and developing future leaders requires developing a meaningful strategy focused on each of these opportunities.

At all phases in a nursing career, first experiences do matter. If the experience or perception of the newly hired nurse is one where he/she feels ill prepared or unsupported, the risk of turnover can most certainly increase.  Whereas, an onboarding experience that goes beyond the traditional one-size-fits-all model to personalize a development plan based on assessed proven competencies, skills, and personality traits is likely to increase engagement and job satisfaction.

Increasing nurse staff development and professional growth

Healthcare organizations can promote high levels of clinical workforce engagement by providing learning opportunities that reinforce new knowledge/skills and foster professional growth. Taking a collaborative approach can further augment an organization’s commitment in the continual development of their workforce. By engaging nurses in their personal and professional growth, a plan that includes the unique needs of the learner and one that is aligned to the needs of the organizations can have a positive impact on both patient outcomes and clinical workforce engagement.

Many organizations offer learning opportunities to their clinical workforce. It is essential to ensure nurses are aware of these opportunities, especially newly licensed nursing professionals.

Meeting the needs of continual learning

Here are a few ways organizations are meeting the continual learning needs of their clinical workforce:

  • Tuition reimbursement to encourage BSN, MSN, or doctorate degrees
  • Encourage participation in local and national nurse associations
  • Providing in-house continuing education opportunities, including those that enhance interdisciplinary awareness
  • Offering access and review of targeted evidence-based literature
  • For mid-to-late career nurses, include them in the same opportunities as early career nurses, but also focus on leadership development and more autonomy to self-direct education based on the individual’s interest.
  • Delivering time-sensitive clinical training, such as COVID-19 protocols and treatment

Diversifying professional development plans

Job satisfaction for mid to later-career nurses will be influenced by nursing professional development plans that include:

  • Opportunities to be recognized for their experience, contributions, and accomplishments
  • Leadership training and management courses
  • Autonomy to choose their own continuing education opportunities accompanied with a hassle-free approval process
  • Retirement planning

3) Measuring the effectiveness of a professional development program

As healthcare continues to transition to a pay-for-performance system, the inclusion of evidence-based practice is a key component to an organization’s success.  The professional development program’s areas of improvement for nurses should be aligned with the strategic goals of an organization.

Furthermore, a structured program should have the ability to measure and track key performance metrics.  A few metrics might include:

  • Nurse satisfaction
  • Retention
  • Engagement
  • Newly acquired knowledge and skills
  • Patient or resident satisfaction
  • Clinical outcomes

Nursing leaders can explore even more progressive and innovative ways to measure the effectiveness of nursing staff professional development initiatives.

Depending on the practice setting, there are also advanced analytic and education tools available to measure learning that includes comparative analytics. Certainly, a robust system can be used to improve specific clinical outcomes that meet the needs for both quality care and the organization’s key performance metrics for their clinical workforce.

Final thoughts on nursing professional development

Nursing professional development plays a critical role to ensure quality care, career satisfaction, and a solid pipeline for tomorrow’s leaders. By committing to the practice of these three critical components, your organization will lead the charge to create an engaged, proficient, and motivated nursing workforce ready to take on the challenges of an ever-changing healthcare landscape.

Organizations will undoubtedly benefit from having a solid nursing professional development program in place — and by first identifying areas of improvements for nurses, leaders can develop the most appropriate professional nursing goals for the organization. Understanding that nursing professional development programs can’t afford to fall by the wayside, even in times of budget constraints or unprecedented events (COVID-19) is also key for healthcare leaders. If anything, the existence of professional development programs is needed now more than ever to help support the nursing community in an especially difficult environment.  Ideally, the following examples of professional goals for nurses will support the overarching aims of most hospitals and health systems. In alignment with your organization’s goals, here are five examples of professional goals for nurses:

  • Pursue advanced certifications (relative to clinical practice area)
  • Remain focused on career path
  • Seek advancement opportunities
  • Prioritize continuing education and advanced learning opportunities
  • Lead a quality improvement or patient safety initiative
Felicia Sadler

Vice President, Quality, Relias

Felicia Sadler has been a registered nurse for over 30 years and is a certified professional in Healthcare Quality, a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt in Healthcare, and has served as an examiner for the Tennessee Center for Performance Excellence. She holds a Master of Jurisprudence in health law from Loyola Chicago School of Law and a Bachelor of Science in nursing from South University. She has served as chairperson for ASHRM's Education Strategy Committee and ASHRM’s Education Development Task Force and assists healthcare organizations with strategic solutions to impact clinical outcomes and optimize organizational performance.

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