The Art of Preceptorships: What They Are and How Program Directors Can Encourage Them

By Niall E. Davis, CST, FAST

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Who are the preceptors?

Preceptors are the seasoned surgical technologists and surgical assistants who have worked in the operating room for a particular service, such as neuro, obstetrics and gynecology, vascular, general and ENT, and have mastered the techniques used by most, if not all, of the surgeons that have privileges. The preceptor is one of the most important and relevant members of the healthcare education team. Without the help and guidance of preceptors, the many lessons to be learned by surgical professionals would not be learned and passed on. The great news is, anyone with a willingness to train, support and mentor a new potential colleague can be a preceptor.

What do preceptors do?

Preceptors are essential in preparing the next generation of surgical technologists, surgeons, operating room nurses and all other surgical professionals who have the desire to serve our communities. No one is born having the skills and knowledge to perform the myriad procedures we are called upon to do for the well-being of our patients. Therefore, we depend upon the seasoned and knowledgeable healthcare professionals currently working in the field to provide this knowledge and guide and teach us how to deliver optimal care. Preceptors supervise, coach and evaluate student progress. They listen to and respect the learner’s questions and maintain contact with the faculty for consultation as needed or desired. Most institutions of higher learning will even provide preceptor training if requested.

Why do we need preceptors?

The preceptor is a bridge of knowledge between the experienced surgical healthcare professional and the student beginner; they are the lifeline for inexperienced practitioners. If you have ever had to go into a procedure blindly, you know the uneasy feeling that comes along with it. Compare that to the time you had a buddy standing there with you — not to tell you everything to do, but to guide you and keep you on your toes throughout the procedure. (I see you smiling!)

We need preceptors to give us a sense of accomplishment and provide proof of forward movement to our instructors and superiors who are responsible for gathering evaluations pertaining to our progress in the operating room and other clinical settings.

When do we need preceptors?

Now! We need all of our dedicated, knowledgeable surgical professionals to take a new person under their wing and teach them the many nuances of their job. Now is the time to ensure that each and every beginner surgical technologist and surgical assistant receives the best education they can. Now is the time to ensure that the next generation of surgical technologists and surgical assistants is equipped with the most up-to-date and relevant training in order to deliver optimal care to our friends and family members. We can’t move forward without the help of the preceptor.

How can program directors help?

As the need for new surgical technologists and surgical assistants grows, so does the need for qualified preceptors. While some in the field are reluctant to serve as preceptors for varied reasons — some may think it is too much work while others may believe they are unqualified — program directors have the power and influence to encourage all to become active participants in the student education process. To that end, program directors can encourage preceptorships. They should actively offer training to the affiliated hospital staff that supports them and also teach the new grads that their future roles will include the possibility of being a preceptor. Students should be taught that they will have a preceptor for every case and how they should expect, nourish and respond to that relationship.

Program directors are also well positioned to ensure that the requirements for being a preceptor are understood. There are two main ways to accomplish this. The first is simple: establish formal preceptor guidelines that detail protocols and activities, and share this information. Explain it thoroughly to students and get a commitment from the operating room staff that they will adhere to these requirements. Second, program directors should establish a partnership with the hospital and operating room manager. This fosters growth and understanding, and reinforces the guidelines.

This is a call to all managers, surgical technologists, surgical assistants, surgeons and affiliated personnel to open your hearts and minds and preserve our rich traditions of training one another to the highest levels in order to deliver optimal medical care to our patients.

I, for one, would love to be a part of the training of our next generation of healthcare workers simply because, if I am lucky, after I have taught my last lecture, monitored my last lab and acted as preceptor for my last student, I will be the patient looking and hoping for the great care I taught my students to give.

niallNiall E. Davis is a full-time surgical technology faculty member at Mira Costa College, one of only four community colleges in California that offers a surgical technology program. Recently selected as a Fellow of the Association of Surgical Technologist (FAST), he is a tenured professor, has 34 years of experience as a surgical technologist and spent 25 years in the Navy.  


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