“Let us never consider ourselves finished nurses. We must be learning all of our lives.” -Florence Nightingale

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 & effective care for complex patient populations.

The nursing workforce is experiencing an influx of millennials and a larger corresponding exit of retiring baby boomers – leading to a loss in valuable expertise and staff shortages. In addition to this shift in the ranks, the average RN turnover rate is 17 percent in hospitals and rises to 34 percent in nursing homes.

The Importance of Professional Development

High-performing organizations recognize the importance of professional development for new and incumbent nurses. The IOM’s Report, The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health, highlights the importance of lifelong learning and the need for a process designed to improve patient care and population health.

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.

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 improvement.

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

1) Dedicated Professional Development Resources

Having an organized, ongoing professional development program 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 and the resources to support their initiatives and goals.

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 has the ability to impact an organization’s strategic goals when it comes to ensuring staff are providing safe & effective care, and they are well-adjusted to the needs of the organization.

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 organizations 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 have the ability to 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 Throughout the Career Lifespan

Nursing professional development needs vary across the career lifespan. A one-size-fits-all approach limits an organizations workforce capabilities, especially when it comes to nurse satisfaction and succession planning.

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.

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 nurse are aware of these opportunities, especially newly licensed nursing professionals.  Here are a few ways organizations are meeting the continual learning needs of their clinical workforce:

  • Tuition reimbursement to encourage education to BSN, MSN, or doctorate
  • 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.

Job satisfaction for mid to later-career nurses will be influenced by nursing professional development 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 programs 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/skills, patient/resident satisfaction and clinical outcomes.  Nursing leaders can explore even more progressive and innovative ways to measure the effectiveness of 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

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.

Read Achieving Nursing Excellence Part 1: Hiring and Onboarding

Felicia Sadler, MJ, BSN, RN, CPHQ, LSSBB

Patient Safety & Quality Executive

Felicia 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. Felicia has served as chairperson for ASHRM's Education Strategy Committee, and ASHRM’s Education Development Task Force and assists health care organizations with strategic solutions to impact clinical outcomes and optimize organizational performance.


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