In the last 20 years or so, nursing as a profession has come a long way in terms of how it is perceived and the opportunities that it presents for advancement, deepening knowledge and offering the chance to specialize in different areas of clinical practice.
On many fronts, there has been a recognition and an acceptance of the importance of our nursing colleagues and their vital contribution that enables them to play a significant role in the evolution of contemporary healthcare. Modern nurses are starting to be appreciated for the highly skilled professionals they have always been, and this creates further potential and a greater demand for enhanced formal skills.
How nursing has changed
The model for nursing delivery has evolved and grown exponentially from the old-fashioned and often false perception of nurses in hospitals emptying bedpans and mopping fevered brows. The provision of appropriate and robust training is essential for retaining talented and promising nurses, with a lack of access being seen as a key driver for nurses leaving the profession. It is now a job for life, with all of the possibilities and potential that can bring.
In the U.S., we have the role of the Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) as a very clear example of how nurses in the healthcare workforce can take all shapes, sizes, skill sets and requirements. In the case of APRNs, these nurses are often delivering care for long-term, relatively stable conditions out in the community at large, using telemedicine and technologically innovative solutions to provide support and assistance and undertaking many tasks that would once have been a doctor’s domain.
They may work out of a health center or medical facility but can rarely be found there because they are taking healthcare to the people who need it most. It has been established through the use of proper data that treating people in their homes is often the kindest and most cost-effective way to provide medical attention and monitoring, preventing the need for long journeys and expensive hospital stays through more focused and appropriate care.
Likewise, there is a reasonable chunk of the nursing workforce who wishes to move into more clinically specific and specialized areas of medicine that offer greater intellectual challenges and personal satisfaction. There are a significant number of widely divergent career paths available. People are choosing to undertake specialist nursing pathways such as neuroscience, neonatal medicine, oncology, mental health and learning disabilities, going into management and strategy, and pursuing opportunities in the fields of research and development.
Moving into management is also a good option. Being part of and managing this vital workforce; understanding its needs; creating and supporting innovation and ensuring that it functions properly to provide high-quality care to patients is also a highly rewarding path to take.
Moving into this area requires a more advanced level of skills and abilities than the standard bachelor’s degree in nursing can offer, which is why increasing numbers of the brightest and best are choosing to study for a postgraduate qualification. This can enhance the longevity of a career by making sure that work is always satisfying and challenging.
How does an MSc help with professional progression?
Large numbers of nurses have already chosen postgraduate education to achieve an MSc, with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing noting that in 2018, 17.1% of the nursing workforce held an MSc in Nursing. The MSc in Nursing encourages its students to think more strategically about the role of nursing in healthcare as a whole and provides that next level of assurance, leadership, and global awareness while not losing sight of the fact that patient care is at the center of everything. It is a delicate balance to achieve.
There are several areas that are essential for nurses to explore and achieve their fullest potential:
Leadership and management skills
Most master’s programs linked to a specific professional area have a baked-in element of leadership development. This subject area has multiple strands to it that helps develop the whole person to become more knowledgeable and confident in their chosen area of expertise, encourage strategic thinking and become adept at achieving results against a backdrop of complex and challenging healthcare systems.
This has often been informed by the latest thinking on organizational behavior as its importance and usefulness become more apparent. Put simply, good leaders with a strong understanding of how people are affected by organizational systems can reduce and prevent patient harm, prevent waste, and maintain workforce morale when things get tough (like they have during the COVID pandemic).
Managing change and ensuring quality
Healthcare provision has undergone a seismic transition due to COVID, with changes to delivery models and the increased use of innovative technological solutions to ensure safety and reduce the likelihood of the transmission of disease. For many patients and healthcare practitioners, this transformation of care has not been an easy one.
Taking telephone triage as an example, many patients feel like they’ve lost the element of personal contact with their practitioners, often not seeing that the initial delivery of care and advice is designed to keep them and the practitioner safe. Many elements need to be managed carefully and wisely, such as acquiring a deeper understanding of managing changes like this while ensuring that the patient gets the care that they need, feels that they haven’t lost out somehow, and most importantly of all, receives an equal – if not better – standard of care than they had before. The purpose of this element of the MSc is to support decision-making by developing the skills and confidence needed to manage change effectively, reduce its impact and make it easier to deal with its aftermath.
Opportunities to specialize
Fields like mental health, learning disabilities, neurological care and oncology have been at the forefront of scientific development, and it’s natural for nurses to want to dig deeper into these interesting areas of study and care provision. Specialization is not just the pathway to knowing more or perhaps earning more; it can also be a source of deep personal and professional satisfaction thanks to the awareness that you are helping improve and save lives while driving innovation forward.
A good example of this is the focused Master of Science in Nursing from Spring Arbor University. This online course, designed to act as a conversion course for registered nurses (RN) and holders of Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degrees into fully fledged Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners (PMHNP), offers all the strands of higher learning and professional development of doing a postgraduate qualification while ensuring that a higher level of specific clinical knowledge is also part of the package.
PMHNPs play a vital role in addressing a major service gap, as the National Council for Mental Wellbeing reports that more than half of counties in the U.S. do not have a psychiatrist available. Another feature that makes this course stand out is that it is possible to complete it in two years, and it even has breaks between modules to fit in better with people’s lives.
Increasing knowledge of medical law and addressing health inequalities
One definition of health inequalities in society states:
“Health inequalities are avoidable, unfair and systematic differences in health between different groups of people. There are many kinds of health inequality, and many ways in which the term is used. This means that when we talk about ‘health inequality’, it is useful to be clear on which measure is unequally distributed, and between which people.” (The Kings Fund, June 17th 2022)
The impact of health inequalities cannot be understated as they affect all aspects of a person’s life from cradle to grave, including their life expectancy, mental health, cancer rates and everything in between. Because nurses are an integral part of the medical workforce who are often operating outside the sphere of hospitals, they can provide an important link to people’s lives, gaining insight into situations that may be impeding or preventing them from living a healthy life. In many cases, there can be legal implications, and the finer points of this can be addressed and highlighted if nurses are aware of the problem and can act on it.
Encouraging digital literacy and using technology well
Telemedicine is one of the greatest developments in healthcare in the last 20 years. Technology that capitalizes on improved IT and communications infrastructure can be monitored by healthcare professionals and enable patients to manage their own conditions better, such as Dexcom for type 1 diabetes. These advancements have had and will continue to have a revolutionizing effect on how healthcare is delivered and experienced.
A nurse who takes up postgraduate studies will not be the type of person who views technical innovation with a skeptical eye and will be able to see the genuine and profound ways in which using technology can have a seriously positive impact on people’s lives. It will never replace a healthcare worker, but anything that increases the sum of information that a healthcare professional can use to support patients’ healthcare must be used strategically to that end.
Nurses hold a unique place in the healthcare system as they are the ones who are closest to patients, families, and carers, and they are often there for a person’s most joyous, terrifying, and tragic moments. They witness the impact of poor processes, legal decisions, and workforce issues, to name but a few areas. However, to influence and engage with policymaking at any level, nurses need to feel valued and empowered to be an agent and advocate for effective policy change and development, and undertaking a Master’s is an effective way of acquiring the necessary self-assurance backed up by appropriate evidence-based learning.
Looking after and developing the workforce
After COVID, workforce retention has become a hot topic, especially for professionals who have been at the sharp end of urgent and emergency care or in a critical care function. It has become more important than ever to be able to recruit more nurses into the profession without simultaneously losing the expertise and empathy of our established nurses due to a lack of development opportunities, burnout, and for many, what can only be accurately described as trauma.
Developing the necessary insight to be an effective nursing leader who can successfully manage this situation involves understanding the strategic challenges that a potentially diminishing workforce may present and possessing the necessary influencing and persuasion skills to ensure that something can be done to prevent this potential disaster. Nursing leaders need to bring people along for the ride in the face of change and circumstance, and having the skills and tools to make lasting and impactful change to keep the workforce happy and motivated is essential.
Taking the postgraduate path is not for everyone, but for individuals with the drive and desire to bring something extra to nursing, it is a powerful tool for personal satisfaction and progression and allows them to give something back to the profession and to patients. It doesn’t hurt that these courses often open doors to better hours and higher pay.
Every aspect of earning a Master of Science in Nursing gives a student the potential to be a significant agent for improvement and fantastic medical care in a field that is always full of innovation and promise. However, for someone who has the determination – whether they wish to qualify in advanced practice, move into management or become an expert in another area – a postgraduate degree in nursing has the right elements to help them achieve their ambitions by providing the foundations for a greater challenge that brings benefits to everyone.