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Karen Harris is a clinical nurse educator at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center (RHLCCC), Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. Karen transitioned to nurse educator after many years of working as an infusion nurse. Her strong desire to teach led her to her current role, educating and mentoring new nurses entering the oncology field. Karen was instrumental in the development of the first preceptorship program at RHLCCC to develop high-level oncology nurses. Karen also chairs RHLCCC’s Best Practice committee, ensuring evidence-based practice across the cancer center.

From Novice to Expert Through Preceptorship Programs

A strong preceptor program specific to oncology is needed to help train nurses new to working in the field.
Along with the continuation of new and exciting advancements in cancer care, comes the complexities of treatments, adverse events, and symptom management. To best care for patients, expertise is required and a preceptor program in oncology is critical to the sustainability of our practice.

Knowledge and critical thinking are just some of the skills nurses need to assess patients’ symptoms and know the difference between a simple case of diarrhea and a possible bowel obstruction; or what may appear to be a non-emergent, low-grade fever but could actually be signs of septic shock from undergoing oncology treatment.

As technology is advancing, fast-track educational programs with more online courses and fewer classrooms are becoming a reality. However, nursing leadership should ensure novice nurses entering oncology are paired with experienced nurses. As a clinical nurse educator who onboards nurses new to the oncology field, I recognize a great need for strong preceptor programs specific to oncology that should be the foundation to build competencies and enable nurses to obtain certifications and continuing education units (CEUs), foster professional relationships, and encourage participation in professional organizations such as the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS).1

Preceptor programs are not a new concept in nursing. These programs have long been developed to transition new graduates from the classroom to the patient’s room. However, the same attention and dedication should be implemented for nurses entering the oncology field even with years of experience in general nursing and advanced practice nursing. Oncology advanced practice nurses (APNs) often serve as preceptors for those new to the cancer space because many graduate nursing programs do not have robust oncology-specific offerings.2

Oncology preceptors would be able to provide the inexperienced nurse with knowledge, skills, and focused assessments that can help them increase their competence. Preceptors not only provide practical clinical education but also support a novice nurse as their mentor and coach.

I have found, when precepting nurses, that the more exposure they are given to learn the higher level of care, the more they will be able to provide such care to their patients. An infusion nurse who cares for patients with breast cancer may benefit from opportunities to shadow experienced nurses in areas such as mammography, radiation oncology, surgical procedures, or new patient consults.

Preceptor programs also benefit organizations, improving staff retention and increasing satisfaction with new employees’ orientation. According to AORN Journal, a publication of the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses, “the partnership between a preceptor and an orientee sets the foundation not only for the nurse’s success in that organization but also for the nurse’s overall success in the nursing profession.”1

Ultimately, the success of an oncology preceptor program will benefit patients who have cancer, ensuring that they receive care from a highly skilled, competent oncology nurse.
  1. Robitaille, P. Preceptor-based orientation programs for new nurse graduates. AORN Journal: 2013:98(5):7-8.
  2. Bazzell, A, Jones, T, Dains, J, Champion, J. Assessing the needs of oncology APRN preceptors. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners: 2018;14(4):296-301. doi: 10.1016/j.nurpra.2017.12.008.

Talk about this article with nurses and others in the oncology community in the General Discussions Oncology Nursing News discussion group.
More from Karen Harris, MSN, RN
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The nursing shortage will be severe, ultimately increasing the number of burnout syndrome among nurses. Nurses will have to take an active role in their own lives to minimize burnout.
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Taking a few minutes to protect yourself from exposure to hazardous drugs is better than your health being compromised.
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