Clinical Extern Program Comes to WCH

September 14, 2023

This spring Women’s College Hospital (WCH) held its first clinical extern program. Made possible through additional funding from Ontario’s Ministry of Health, the clinical extern program is made up of clinical learners who temporarily join the hospital as staff to receive hands-on skill development and to provide additional support to programs across the organization.

Clinical externs are typically student healthcare professionals, like nurses, physiotherapists, and occupational therapists, looking to gain experience. Each extern is assigned to a specific program that then determines how that extern can best support their team’s specific needs and workflow requirements.

“Our extern program had three distinct and clear objectives,” explained Melanie Henry an advanced practice nurse in Professional Practice at WCH. “The first was to provide an extra set of hands to support our programs, clinics and healthcare professionals. Our staff continue to face intensive workloads, having externs provided teams with additional staff members to help support both administrative work and clinical care responsibilities.”

“COVID-19 disrupted the clinical experiences of many externs. As a result, the second goal for the program was to help further the externs’ practical experience, allowing them to grow and learn in their careers. And finally, our third objective was to leverage the program to engage and attract healthcare students to consider WCH as their future employer,” Henry explained.

While clinical extern programs are not a new development within the healthcare system, they aren’t frequently implemented within academic ambulatory care hospitals, like WCH. Given this reality the Professional Practice team at WCH had to adapt the typical clinical extern program format. “Most hospitals that have clinical externs are acute care in-patient settings,” shared Theresa Kay, director of WCH’s Professional Practice. “Our team was able to adapt the program’s format to our ambulatory model and tailor it to better meet the needs of our patient populations with a specific focus on equity and the social determinants of health.”

As the program comes to an end, the feedback from the clinical externs has been overwhelmingly positive. Many have highlighted the value of being exposed to and working in an ambulatory setting. Additionally, many of the externs have also shared that they have enjoyed working collaboratively as a member of an inter-professional team to advance patient care. Clinical managers, directors and teams have also found the program beneficial, noting that it was valuable addition to existing workflows and enabled staff to take needed vacation time minimizing the impact on patient volumes.  

As the health system looks for innovative ways to grow the healthcare workforce and enhance patient care, clinical extern programs can act as a valuable step forward – benefiting the extern, the organization, and the patient community. “This has been such a valuable and productive experience for everyone involved and our hope is to hold additional clinical extern programs going forward,” Theresa Kay said.